Navy in unfamiliar territory after loss

If Mids can rebound today by beating Rice, they'd be eligible for bowl game

College Football

October 23, 2004|By Kent Baker | Kent Baker,SUN STAFF

In an obtuse way, Notre Dame paid Navy the ultimate compliment last weekend.

The Irish came out strong from the opening kickoff, instead of dawdling at first and then finishing fast. That had become a trend recently in their lopsided series, but, this time Notre Dame was extremely serious at the start and went on to a convincing victory.

Navy never contended, but the Irish intensity was a clear indication that it had gained the respect accorded an opponent considered a genuine threat.

Today, the Midshipmen return to their relative talent level and will be favored when Rice visits Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium for a 1:30 p.m. kickoff. Their latest mission is to bounce back for the first time all season.

"Obviously, we want to win the rest of them," said Navy quarterback Aaron Polanco. "But it's still one game at a time, and this one is a test to show what we're made of."

The Midshipmen (5-1) have been quite resilient in conquests of Northeastern, Vanderbilt and Air Force, all by four points or fewer. But they haven't had to deal yet with the natural letdown a defeat often spawns.

"We were disappointed [with the loss]," said wide receiver Amir Jenkins. "We felt well-prepared and wasted it, and beating Notre Dame was one of our main goals. But we're looking positively on the rest of the season, the next five, hopefully six, games. We'll leave Notre Dame to the classes of '06 and '07 and move on."

If numbers don't lie and the coaches don't resort to a lot of trickery, today's game will be won on the ground. Both teams like to pound away, with Rice ranked No. 1 nationally in rushing and Navy at No. 6. They are last and next-to-last, respectively, in passing among Division I-A teams.

That will make for a rapid pace by the clock today, particularly without the commercial time from Navy's past two games, both nationally televised.

The game features two of the foremost coaching practitioners of option football, Navy's Paul Johnson and Rice veteran Ken Hatfield, who has been successful at such schools as Clemson and Arkansas.

"We don't have an easy task going into Navy," Hatfield said. "They're the best of all the `academic' schools around the country. They've got the best record. Stanford is next with [4-2]. They [Navy] just played a vastly superior team the other day in Notre Dame. You don't get to 5-1 with nothing."

Rice has abandoned the more wide-open style adopted last season and returned to the grinding offense of previous years.

"They're back to their roots and running the option," Johnson said. "They run a lot of different options. They've got a big offensive line and their quarterbacks [senior Greg Henderson and freshman Joel Armstrong] are fast. They're committed to running the ball."

Johnson's biggest concern is a banged-up and ineffective offensive line that was pushed around by Notre Dame. Tackle Tyson Stahl has had limited practice this week and tackle Casey Hughes is still slowed by an ankle sprain endured in fall camp.

"We can't make major changes," Johnson said. "We've tried just about every combination we have. What we will try to do is put together the group that gives us the best chance to win, whoever that is."

Hatfield realizes an inconsistent Rice team - which lost one of the wildest games in school history (70-63 at San Jose State) - will be encountering a foe that played against a similar attack (Air Force) a few weeks earlier.

"They're not going to beat themselves and give you a lot of easy stuff," he said.

It will be a struggle of field position and ball possession as Navy strives to become eligible for a bowl game with a sixth victory. Division I-AA Delaware is next, a win that would not count toward qualifying because the Midshipmen have already beaten a I-AA opponent (Northeastern) and can use only one such game in their total.

Navy, which lost to Texas Tech in the Houston Bowl last December, has gone bowling in consecutive seasons only once - in 1980 and 1981.

Rice (3-3) at Navy (5-1)

Site: Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium

Time: 1:30 p.m.

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

Line: Navy by 9 1/2

Series: Rice leads 6-3

Last week: Rice lost to Nevada, 35-10; Navy lost to Notre Dame, 27-9

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