Hard work pays off for undersized Navy

Mids' season gets tougher today against Vanderbilt

College Football

September 25, 2004|By Kent Baker | Kent Baker,SUN STAFF

So far, effort has translated into victory for the Navy football team.

Almost invariably smaller and with less abundant raw talent than their opposition, the Midshipmen have compensated by accepting the coaching staff's scheme, playing as a unit, being in superior physical shape and hustling.

That simple formula has carried Navy to a 3-0 record and a No. 6 rating in ESPN's ranking of mid-major teams.

But now the road gets more treacherous, beginning today when Southeastern Conference member Vanderbilt invades Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium for the 1:30 p.m. kickoff of a contest that will launch the defining three-game stretch of the season.

With bitter rival Air Force to come in only five days and the annual effort to end decades of frustration against Notre Dame after that, the Midshipmen have reached the heart of their season.

Coach Paul Johnson is stressing the one-game-at-a-time philosophy, lest his players get too far ahead of themselves with such big showdowns on the horizon.

"We're not even a third of the way through the season so I think you have to try to keep it on an even-keel basis," he said. "It's been my experience that if you do that, come November, you will have something to play for and it becomes a big deal. We can still lose eight games, and nobody will be happy with that."

Least of all his players, who were thrilled with last week's 29-0 shutout of Tulsa. Temporarily.

"I think I was a little chilled just watching from the sidelines at the end," said starting cornerback Vaughn Kelley, who was witnessing the finish as the reserves tried to preserve the blanking. "I was saying it would be unbelievable if we get it. I lost my voice. Then DuJuan [Price] made those two interceptions and all I could say was `Yeah!'"

The squad savored Navy's first shutout of a Division I-A team since 1980 for about 24 hours, then it was back to work.

Although the Midshipmen are 8 1/2 -point favorites against Vanderbilt, last year's hard-earned win against the Commodores is enough to make the veterans understand the challenge.

"This is the biggest game of the season. Their offense is high-powered. They passed pretty much whenever and wherever they wanted to against us, but we managed to pull it out," said Kelley. "Their quarterback [Jay Cutler] was nailing us across the middle. He'll test you, no matter who you are, if he thinks he has an opening."

The Navy strategy will be a familiar one. Try to dominate the possession time with the spread option offense, meet at the ball on defense and keep mistakes to a minimum. In the 2003 meeting, the Midshipmen had the ball nearly 14 minutes more than the Commodores.

"It always helps to have our offense stay on the field," said Kelley. "That keeps the tempo of the game on our side."

Johnson and Vanderbilt coach Bobby Johnson are no strangers, having coached against each other five times previously as the leaders of Southern Conference powerhouses, Georgia Southern and Furman. Including last season's win in Nashville, Paul Johnson is 5-2 against his namesake.

"They are one of the toughest, hard-nosed teams that I've seen in a while," Bobby Johnson said of Navy. "They make you earn everything."

One of the preseason goals of the Midshipmen was to improve on last season's 8-5 record. They have taken the first step.

"I think it's real important to validate that last year wasn't just a flash in the pan and that we're going to build a program," Paul Johnson said. "I feel that we're building, but I know it's a fragile area.

"I'm a firm believer that if you just keep putting one foot in front of the other, the finish line will get there. If you start looking for the finish line, you're going to stumble and fall."

With more depth and skilled players and few major injury problems to date, the Navy coaches have been able to substitute liberally and keep the players fresh. That is reflected in a whopping 50-13 Navy edge in second-half scoring. The Midshipmen have not allowed a fourth-quarter point.

So far, the finish line has been good to this team.

Today's game

Vanderbilt (0-2) vs. Navy (3-0)

Site: Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium

Time: 1:30 p.m.

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

Line: Navy by 8 1/2

Series: Tied 2-2-2

Last week: Navy defeated Tulsa, 29-0; Vanderbilt lost to Mississippi, 26-23, in overtime.

Outlook: The surprising Midshipmen face another team sorely in need of a victory as they seek their first 4-0 start since 1979. Vanderbilt lost last week, squandering a 23-10 lead, and may be without two of its top players, OT Justin Geisinger (sprained knee) and WR Erik Davis (dislocated toe). But the Commodores still have a dangerous attack built around a good QB, Jay Cutler. Their running game came alive against Ole Miss, with 183 yards; RB Norval McKenzie and Cutler are threats. Navy's 37-27 win in Nashville last season, its first against an SEC foe in nearly 40 years, was key in the run to a bowl bid. The Mids are almost at full strength, with only WR Amir Jenkins questionable. Navy is averaging 310 yards on the ground, behind QB Aaron Polanco and FB Kyle Eckel.

- Kent Baker

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