Mids get second wind since hurricane delay

Johnson's team on a three-game roll, but 0-5 Rice still struggling

Navy -- Maryland


Much has changed since Navy and Rice were scheduled to meet almost a month ago before being waylaid by Hurricane Rita.

Before the postponement, the game was to be Rice's home opener between two winless teams that had played some rugged opposition. Since then, Navy has launched a three-game winning streak while the Owls have dropped three to go 0-5.

Despite the disparity, Navy coach Paul Johnson, whose team has played nothing but close games, is expecting another tight battle tonight when they meet at 6 at Rice Stadium.

"Historically, they [games with Rice] have been really close. If you look at this year, that's all we know how to play," Johnson said. "I would like to have one that ends in double digits as long as we are on the good end. I doubt that this one will be that way."

The Midshipmen have played four three-point games, going 2-2, and one decided by seven points against Duke that they had to preserve by knocking down a pass at the goal line on the final play.

And, last season, Navy needed a botched extra point by Brennan Landry to nip the Owls, 14-13, in Annapolis.

Rice has lost 11 consecutive games dating back to 2004 and confronted a tough early schedule that has included No. 2 Texas and undefeated UCLA in the first two games.

"The biggest thing when you have young players playing like we have is to have some positive feedback," said Ken Hatfield, the Owls' 12th-year coach. "It was extremely tough to gain confidence in those first two games. We're playing hard, but not with the confidence you have to have."

Rice is scheduled to start just two seniors tonight, the fewest on any Division I-A team in the nation.

As usual, it figures to be a fast-paced affair between two spread-option attacks, although both squads are passing a little more this season.

It is on defense that the Owls have been particularly vulnerable, allowing nearly 482 yards and 48.2 points per game and forcing a mere two turnovers in five starts.

"We are making progress," said Hatfield after a 41-21 loss to Tulsa last Saturday, when two of the opposing touchdowns came on a kickoff return and fumble return. "We were scrambling and hustling around the ball."

The change of defensive play callers from Roger Hinshaw to Charlie Rizzo has necessitated some adjustments, and now the Owls' defense must go back to spring workouts to be reminded of how to stop the option attack Navy runs so well. "Hopefully, we'll carry over some things we learned then," Hatfield said.

The Midshipmen have won four consecutive games only twice in the past 25 years, including the first five of 2004, but nothing has come easily. They committed a season-high four turnovers in the 34-31 squeaker over Kent State a week ago and Johnson pulled starting quarterback Lamar Owens in the second period.

Brian Hampton entered to lead a precise touchdown drive, and Owens got a chance to gather himself.

"I just really wanted him to settle down," Johnson said of Owens. "He was struggling, and sometimes if you give a guy a break like that, they can stand on the sidelines and watch and, hopefully, get their feet back under them. He was frustrated and I was frustrated with him. It was good for us both."

Despite six interceptions (two more than the team had all last season), Owens is averaging 7.8 yards per play, a number which would break the school record.

He will be back in command of the offense.


Tonight's game

Navy (3-2) @ Rice (0-5)

Site -- Rice Stadium, Houston

Time -- 6

Radio -- 1090 AM, 1430 AM

Last week -- Navy defeated Kent State, 34-31; Rice lost to Tulsa, 41-21

Series record -- Rice leads 6-4

Line -- Navy by 7

Outlook -- The Midshipmen will be seeking their fourth straight victory for just the third time in 25 years against an opponent that would like a win of any kind. Rice has dropped 11 games in a row dating back to last season, tying Army for the longest skid in the country. This meeting was postponed for nearly a month when Hurricane Rita struck the Texas-Louisiana border area. Despite beating Kent State, Navy drew the ire of coach Paul Johnson for making a slew of mistakes. These teams are similar in offensive approach with option offenses and a stress on running the ball. Navy is fourth nationally in rushing at 267 yards a game, and the Owls average 206 on the ground. The Rice defense has forced only two turnovers in five games and allowed nearly 482 yards a game. Two opponents have returned kicks for touchdowns against the Owls, who have not played a team with a losing record. Navy had four turnovers last week, but still rolled up 532 yards in offense. QB Lamar Owens leads Navy with 410 yards rushing and 717 passing. The Midshipmen edged Rice, 14-13, last season on a missed extra point. This is the final game on the two teams' current contract.

Kent Baker

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