Tulane loves to travel by air, so Navy's assignment tonight is to disrupt its flight plans.
"They're going to test us early," said veteran Midshipman corner Vaughn Kelley. "I wouldn't put that past them. I don't know what it is about New Orleans, all the scoring they've done against us here. We plan on trying to change that. It's a challenge to hold them down."
Kelley and his mates in the defensive secondary will be on center stage when the rivals with contrasting approaches to offense clash tonight at the Superdome, starting at 7 p.m.
Navy pits its third-ranked rushing offense, paced by quarterback Aaron Polanco and fullback Kyle Eckel, against the Green Wave's fast fleet of receivers, paced by NFL prospect Roydell Williams, in a game between teams that have typically produced a ton of points when they meet.
The Midshipmen (7-1), who previously got a steady diet of run-oriented opponents, received a warm-up for the aerial assault last week when Delaware unloaded 50 passes in a 34-20 Navy victory. But the vast majority were short throws, and the defense managed to keep them all from turning into game-breakers, a Navy strength the past two seasons.
Conversely, up-and-down Tulane (2-5) will not be reticent about attempting to go deep for the home run ball with quarterback Lester Ricard, a transfer from LSU who beat Alabama-Birmingham with a school-record six touchdown passes two weeks ago.
"Delaware kind of got us in the mode [for defending passes]," Kelley said. "It was at game-time speed, so you got a good feel for it. But this team figures to be more vertical than sideline-to-sideline."
Navy coach Paul Johnson agrees.
"No question," Johnson said of the long-distance threat. "Delaware isn't really a vertical team, but Tulane is. They will throw all the screens and underneath stuff, but they will go deep. You can count on it."
The Green Wave isn't throwing quite as much this season, partially because Ricard is still finding his way and partially because former quarterbacks Patrick Ramsey and J.P. Losman are now playing in the pros. But maintaining ball control and grinding out drives that result in scores will be essential for Navy against a team with such quick-strike capability.
Meanwhile, the Midshipmen present just as great a problem for a fledgling Tulane defense that has just two senior starters.
"It is a very tough task against Navy. It is switching gears from one offense to another. Our kids are really going to need to focus this week," said Green Wave coach Chris Scelfo.
Navy has some scores to settle in New Orleans. Tulane has pounded the Midshipmen for 143 points in three consecutive victories at home, and the academy hasn't won there in a decade.
Johnson considers Williams "the best receiver we've played against all year," so containing him will be a priority, but Chris Bush and Damarcus Davis are also averaging more than 15 yards per catch. Creating turnovers - something the Navy defense has not managed in three straight games - might be essential.
Navy's offensive line, which has received its share of criticism, rebounded with a creditable effort against Delaware and will be facing a generally inexperienced group on defense. If they can repeat, the Midshipmen could control the game.
"Everything wasn't perfect all the time," Johnson said. "But the guys up front played better and even when we didn't get everybody blocked, Kyle ran through some tackles."
Scelfo knows his team will be combating a highly confident Navy team that could become the first in the school's history to finish with a double-digit victory total.
"They are executing their offense to perfection and not turning the ball over; they are throwing the ball a little more than they have for big plays," Scelfo said. "Defensively is where they are most improved, keeping everything in front of them and making you be patient. We have to be patient with our offense."
That would mean settling for shorter completions in the air game. Navy would like nothing better.
Navy (7-1) at Tulane (2-5)
Site: Louisiana Superdome, New Orleans
Time: 7 p.m.
Radio: WJFK (1300 AM), WNAV (1430 AM)
Series record: Tulane leads 10-6-1
Last week: Navy defeated Delaware, 34-20; Tulane lost to Houston, 24-3
Line: Navy by 12 1/2