Mids seek comforts of homecoming

I-AA Delaware brings reminder of last year's tough 21-17 Navy loss

College Football

October 30, 2004|By Kent Baker | Kent Baker,SUN STAFF

One year later, Navy's resurgent football team is going to try to get this homecoming thing right.

Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium will be teeming with spectators. Many of them will be academy graduates eager to witness an example of their team's new might under coach Paul Johnson. Division I-AA Delaware, the same team that spoiled the reunion last season, is back in its Michigan-like maize and blue.

The setting is almost identical to last year, when the Blue Hens came to Annapolis and upset the mistake-ridden Mids, 21-17, on their way to the I-AA championship. What Navy craves this time is a different result.

"They're the last team to beat us on our home field. We want it real bad," said Navy linebacker Lane Jackson. "We don't really get involved in all the homecoming stuff like the brigade. But we're hungry to win."

Added defensive end Jeremy Chase: "That was a painful loss for us when they came in here. We were riding a three-game winning streak at the time, and that shook us back into reality. We want some payback."

Will it be trick or treat on Halloween eve for the Midshipmen, who squeezed by Rice last Saturday on a missed extra point to become eligible for a bowl appearance? A defeat probably won't hurt their bowl chances - it certainly didn't last season - but a victory can only help.

Navy has defeated one Atlantic 10 Conference team, Northeastern, this season. It wasn't easy. The Midshipmen trailed at halftime before two third-quarter touchdowns, three Huskies turnovers in the second half and a stingy defense late in the game produced a 28-24 triumph.

Division I-AA teams at this level are highly competitive with the majority of Division I-A.

"They have good players," Johnson said of the Blue Hens. "Don't kid yourself into thinking we're physically superior. We're not. I coached in I-AA. I was fortunate enough to coach at one of the better programs, and we won national championships. I guarantee you that teams I had at Georgia Southern could do very well against our schedule.

"I don't think they're going to line up and play Southern Cal, but neither are we."

Delaware is on a six-game winning streak and, as is commonplace at a number of high-plateau I-A programs, has been bolstered by transfers from big-time football powers. Coach K.C. Keeler refutes the thought that his program is any different from others in the division.

"We had the third-least number of transfers among the NCAA playoff teams," Keeler said. "I guess people don't understand that we spend a lot more time recruiting freshmen. We're very careful about taking the right people [transfers] to make the right fit. The key is that the guys you take work out."

The Blue Hens have been prudent in that regard. Andy Hall, who quarterbacked them to a 15-1 record last season, and defensive end Shawn Johnson were at Atlantic Coast Conference schools before moving to Newark, Del. Both were NFL sixth-round draft picks.

"We will get some of the best ones because Delaware is a unique place," said Keeler, referring to the tradition (six national titles) and constant sellout crowds at home.

Among the current transfers are defensive back Garron Bible, a three-year letter winner at Notre Dame who has played against Navy three times, wide receiver David Boler, who spent one season at USC without playing, and quarterback Sonny Riccio, the No. 2 quarterback at Missouri behind Heisman Trophy hopeful Brad Smith in 2003.

Riccio passed for more than 300 yards in Delaware's past two home games as Keeler stepped up the passing game.

"Sonny has gotten more comfortable and our wide receivers [Boler and Justin Long] were both hurting with hamstrings earlier in the season," Keeler said.

Delaware, which will play at Maryland in 2008, is understandably excited about visiting Navy again. It is a chance to be on television (CN8), meet a nationally known team, and have its fans make the short trip to Annapolis. But its primary accent is on the conference, especially with Atlantic 10 unbeaten James Madison up next.

Johnson has been mixing and matching at several spots on the Navy offensive line all season because of injuries and ineffective play. He said the same five who opened against Rice will probably return, including center James Rossi, who received his first start last week.

The coach expressed disappointment with how his team played against Delaware last season, squandering an early 14-0 lead, committing errors and failing to regain momentum late. He expects another stern challenge.

"It will be a good football game," he said. "You don't win six games and not have some ability. I don't care who you play. They might get us, but if they do they aren't going to slip up on us."

Today's game

Delaware (6-1) at Navy (6-1)

Site: Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium

Time: 1:30 p.m.

TV/Radio: CN8/WJFK (1300 AM), WNAV (1430 AM)

Series record: Tied 6-6

Last week: Navy beat Rice, 14-13; Delaware beat William and Mary, 31-28.

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