Twice-beaten Tulsa does not look like a pushover to Navy

Golden Hurricane, after improvement last season, plays home opener today

September 18, 2004|By Kent Baker | Kent Baker,SUN STAFF

After a 2003 season in which their teams made the two most positive turnarounds in NCAA Division I-A football, Tulsa coach Steve Kragthorpe and Navy's Paul Johnson made the banquet circuit as fellow nominees for coach of the year awards.

Nick Saban of Louisiana State swept most of the honors, but Kragthorpe and Johnson had a good time discussing the meeting of their teams that will occur tonight at Skelly Stadium in Tulsa.

"Neither of us was in our position when this game was scheduled," Kragthrope recalled. "Both of the teams were kind of struggling. We were laughing about it at the Bear Bryant Awards."

"I think the year this game was scheduled there might have been one or two wins between the two schools," said Johnson. "That changed a little bit last year [when both finished 8-5, including a bowl-game loss]. We joked about that."

The Golden Hurricane had been 1-11 in 2002 while Navy went 2-10 in Johnson's first year.

Now that the first meeting of the teams has arrived, it is no joking matter. Navy is working on an unbeaten record after two games, and Tulsa is winless entering its home opener. The Midshipmen are expecting a handful.

"They're looking for that first win. They're going to be prepared," said Navy fullback Kyle Eckel. "This is a big trip for us."

"They're going to come at us pretty hard," added slotback Eric Roberts. "We're going to have to step it up a bit and limit our mistakes from the first two games."

Navy has not started 3-0 since 1979, when it won six straight to launch the season and has opened with three consecutive victories only twice in the past 40 years. It will enter the test almost at full strength, with wide receiver Amir Jenkins (leg injury) the only player who might not participate.

The only position change is at punter, where place-kicker Geoff Blumenfeld has been relieved of the duty. Either Eric Shuey or Ethan Gouge will replace him, but Johnson is withholding the announcement until game time.

"Our guys sometimes kick better if they don't know they're going to kick," said the coach.

As a member of the Western Athletic Conference, Tulsa has defended an offense similar to Navy's triple option while playing Rice.

"They ought to have a pretty good handle on it," said Rice coach Ken Hatfield. "I thought they played extremely well against us last year."

Last week, Northeastern loaded its defense to stop Eckel, who was rationed to 55 yards on 18 carries, leading quarterback Aaron Polanco to call his number 29 times for 143 yards and three touchdowns.

"A few teams did that to us last year," said Eckel. "And the quarterback and A back [slot] had big games. You stop one part of the triple option and the others will get you."

Still, Tulsa is probably the most athletic team Navy has encountered, running a pro-type offense and an active defense that flies to the ball. And, the Golden Hurricane is experienced, with 17 starters back on the two main units.

Kragthorpe last season stressed "rekindling the flame" at a school that has produced such names as Jerry Rhome, Howard Twilley, Drew Pearson and Steve Largent.

He said his team functioned with "great effort" in losses at Kansas and Oklahoma State, with the defense particularly solid. The secondary is particularly tough, with three seniors back from a unit that ranked 16th nationally in pass defense last year.

"We're going to get their best shot," said Johnson. "They're coming off a great year and a bowl game, and it's time to circle the wagons."

As for his own team, Johnson added: "I told them we're playing with fire and it's going to catch up with us sooner or later if we don't get it in gear. We don't have any killer instinct. If you have somebody down, you better put your foot on their neck with all your weight."

Today's game

Navy (2-0) vs. Tulsa (0-2)

Site: Skelly Stadium, Tulsa, Okla.

Time: 7 p.m.

Radio: WJFK (1300 AM), WNAV (1430 AM)

Series record: First meeting

Last week: Navy defeated Northeastern, 28-24; Tulsa lost to Oklahoma State, 38-21.

Outlook: Off to a 2-0 start for the first time since 1996, the Midshipmen figure to encounter stern opposition from the only team to improve more than they did last season. Tulsa is winless, but has played at two Big 12 schools. Last week at Oklahoma State, the offense showed signs of coming alive behind senior quarterback James Kilian and a productive tight end combination of Caleb Blankenship and Garrett Mills. The Golden Hurricane boasts more speed than any of Navy's previous opponents. Navy, which has not opened 3-0 in 25 years, will depend on its tough-to-defend triple option quarterbacked by Aaron Polanco that has amassed 601 yards rushing. The Midshipmen have a negative (2.0) ratio, and holding onto the ball will be imperative. - Kent Baker

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