S.F. to serve as proving ground

New Mexico, Navy seeking validation for rising programs

Emerald Bowl

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

SAN FRANCISCO - Two teams with a final point to prove collide today in the third Emerald Bowl at soggy SBC Park.

The goal of Navy (9-2) is to tack another achievement - a bowl victory - onto its resurgence while New Mexico (7-4) seeks to squash more than four decades of postseason futility since it beat Western Michigan in the Aviation Bowl in 1961.

Both programs are striving to step further into the national spotlight after finishing just below the Top 25 in the regular-season rankings. Navy has not been ranked since October 1979.

It is an intriguing matchup of old-fashioned football that features dominating ground attacks and gang-tackling defenses. That style figures to be even more prominent in the wake of this week's near-constant rainfall that has soaked the stadium's bluegrass.

Unlike Texas Tech, which exuded a confidence bordering on braggadocio last year before meeting the Midshipmen in the Houston Bowl, New Mexico is professing profound respect for a Navy team that is trying to equal a 99-year-old school record of 10 wins in a season.

Lobos coach Rocky Long set the tone at the pre-game news conference when he called his counterpart, Paul Johnson, "the best play-calling option coach in the country, and I'm not just saying that because we're playing them. They can attack you at several different places no matter how you line up on defense."

But Midshipmen quarterback Aaron Polanco might encounter his most difficult test of the season against a New Mexico defense that allowed 93.6 yards rushing per game. By contrast, Navy is third in the country in rushing offense, its spread option attack grinding out 291.4 yards per game.

"It's crazy to watch some of the things they do on defense," said Polanco, whose reads will be critical. "A lot of times you don't see nearly as much blitzing. I think it'll be tough because you don't know exactly where they're coming from. You have to be ready for anything."

"Aaron can eliminate two or three guys on the defense just by making the right read," said Johnson. "We don't have to block them if he does that. It will improve our chances a bit. It's a big challenge for him."

New Mexico, which finished on a five-game winning streak after a 2-4 start, beat Texas Tech early in the season, but lost at Air Force while playing without No. 1 quarterback Kole McKamey. Navy eked out a 24-21 win over Air Force in Colorado Springs this season but was dominated by Texas Tech a year ago in the Houston Bowl, so comparative scores don't provide much of a clue.

"I think Navy is way better than Air Force," said Lobos co-captain and safety Josh Bazinet. "They have more respect for the game and they're a more diverse team, hard to prepare for. They do a few more things."

New Mexico has not played since Nov. 20, so it has enjoyed five weeks of preparation for the nuances of the Navy attack. But the layoff could present a different problem.

"There is no telling how much time it'll take to get the rust knocked off," said Long. "And it's going to take time to get used to the speed with which Navy runs the option. Our scout team certainly doesn't play at that speed."

On the other side of the ball, the Midshipmen's smallish defensive unit must cope with New Mexico's mammoth offensive line and wide receivers.

"It'll be crucial to keep [the Lobos' big linemen] off our linebackers," said Navy defensive coordinator Buddy Green.

"It's always good to dominate up front," said 338-pound offensive tackle Claude Terrell, a unanimous All-Mountain West Conference choice. "We're not going to back away from our M.O. We'll try to impose our will on them early, so come the fourth quarter, there will be smiles on our sideline."

Since 2001, New Mexico is 18-1 when scoring first, winning its past 11 in that situation.

Much of that success can be attributed to the skills of unanimous All-MWC tailback DonTrell Moore, the conference's all-time leading rusher. If the Lobos get an early lead, they can play their smash-mouth game to perfection.

Terrell said the Lobos believe they have a program on an upsurge.

"It's time to take the next step," he said. "But Navy is a team that doesn't give you a lot. You have to earn it and you can't make mistakes. We have to execute at a real high level. Hopefully, with all the big guys leaning on them the whole game, we can smile late."

Navy, which hasn't won a bowl game since 1996, is determined to climb another rung as well. No one wants to hear about how successful this season will have been if the Midshipmen fall here.

"You don't go in thinking it'll be a good season if we lose," said Polanco. "That would defeat the purpose."

Said fullback Kyle Eckel: "I'm not even concerned about what it means if we win or lose. We're here to play with a lot of intensity and to win."

NOTES: Game officials are from Conference USA. ... A record crowd of 30,000-plus is expected, with nearly two-thirds of those tickets being sold to Navy fans. ... The Emerald Bowl has nothing to do with the green gem of the same name. Diamond of California, the nut company, is the title sponsor and Emerald is its snack nut division.

Bowl histories

Navy (4-5-1)

Year Game Opponent Result

1924 Rose Washington T, 14-14

1955 Sugar Mississippi W, 21-0

1958 Cotton Rice W, 20-7

1961 Orange Missouri L, 21-14

1964 Cotton Texas L, 28-6

1978 Holiday Brigham Young W, 23-16

1980 Garden State Houston L, 35-0

1981 Liberty Ohio State L, 31-28

1996 Aloha California W, 42-38

2003 Houston Texas Tech L, 38-14

New Mexico (2-5-1)

Year Game Opponent Result

1939 Sun Utah L, 26-0

1944 Sun Southwestern L, 7-0

1946 Sun Denver W, 34-24

1947 Harbor Montana State T, 13-13

1961 Aviation Western Michigan W, 28-12

1997 Insight Arizona L, 20-14

2002 Las Vegas UCLA L, 27-13

2003 Las Vegas Oregon State L, 55-14

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