Fan support has Navy feeling at home

Big contingent swarms San Diego to see Mids in Poinsettia Bowl tonight


SAN DIEGO -- The final pre-game news conference and team luncheon were staged aboard the venerable USS Midway, once a mighty aircraft carrier and now a museum docked in the San Diego Harbor.

Navy and Marine Corps fighter planes and helicopters zoom through the skies all over the area.

Hundreds of ships in port for the holiday season sit at the 32nd Naval station a short hop from downtown.

The thousands of fans who purchased tickets from the Naval Academy Athletic Association - they outdid sales at Colorado State by more than 4-to-1 - have begun to swarm into the city, assuring the Poinsettia Bowl of a distinct nautical flavor in its first postseason venture.

For the Mids, it will be almost as good as playing in Annapolis.

Whether all that presence translates into a second straight bowl victory will be determined tonight when Navy takes on the Rams at Qualcomm Stadium before an anticipated crowd in excess of 45,000. The game, which will be televised on ESPN2, kicks off at 10:30.

"I think they're trying to intimidate us," joked Colorado State coach Sonny Lubick.

His counterpart, Navy coach Paul Johnson, welcomes the massive show of support, but dismisses the notion that it gives the Midshipmen an advantage in what is essentially a tossup game.

"You have to give our administration and our fan base credit," he said. "Hopefully, we can feed off all the emotion. But once you get kicked off and get hit in the mouth once, you forget about who's in the stands."

San Diego is a Navy stronghold even under normal circumstances, the headquarters of the Pacific fleet. It is even more so this week with the invasion from the East.

"Besides playing at the academy, there isn't a better place we could play," said Navy defensive captain Jeremy Chase.

That conceded, Colorado State brings some advantages of its own - a familiarity with the site since it annually meets San Diego State, a fellow Mountain West Conference member, and three Holiday Bowl appearances, the experience wrought by nine postseason appearances under Lubick since 1994 and the usual height and weight advantages that Navy almost always encounters in its opponents.

It also has a potent offensive unit that includes 1,166-yard runner Kyle Bell (one fumble lost in 254 carries), probable NFL draft pick David Anderson, the school's career leader with 214 catches and 3,508 receiving yards, and quarterback Justin Holland, who tends to run hot and cold but has thrown for 20 touchdowns this season, a school record.

Lubick added yesterday that - with more than a month to recoup since last playing on Nov. 19 - his injury-marred offensive line is healthy again.

"They're big up front and very balanced," said Navy defensive coordinator Buddy Green. "They use a lot of formations and keep you off-balance. That makes it hard to get a bead on them.

"Their running back has good hips and patience and can run by you or over you. And they've got a good bootleg game; the quarterback keeps you honest with the play-action pass. The receivers do a great job of blocking and can go get the ball. We've got our hands full."

Said Chase: "They've got a lot of weapons. But they pretty much run stuff we've already seen."

Navy, of course, will counter with its intricate triple-option attack that has made the past three years of the Johnson regime so successful (25-11 record). It will be missing one of its most dangerous threats, plebe slotback Karlos Whittaker (who will undergo knee surgery after the holidays), but still poses problems for a defense not accustomed to its multifaceted face.

"No doubt they're going to be a challenge," Lubick said. "I hope we can get the ball back during the game and maybe keep it away from them. ... Nobody runs it as well or better than the Naval Academy."

A quick start would be a boon to Navy, which has won 11 straight when scoring first. Colorado State is 68-13 when it strikes first during Lubick's tenure, but the long layoff and cold weather back home, which minimized practice time against the option, may hurt.

"I think it'll definitely help us that they've been off so long," said Navy linebacker Jake Biles. "You get out of rhythm a little bit. It might take them a little while to get going."

Quarterback Lamar Owens said: "If they come out sharp, we have to be sharp, too. I know I'm ready. It's my last game, it's in a big-time stadium, under the lights and on national TV. This is the way to go out."

And with a "home away from home" crowd behind them.

Poinsettia Bowl: Keys to the game

Stopping the run

Navy is No. 1 nationally in rushing with its tricky triple-option offense; Colorado State is 104th in rushing defense, only 13 from the bottom among Division I-A teams. Can the Rams contain or at least minimize the effectiveness of Navy's ball carriers? Coach Sonny Lubick is a defensive guru, but his unit this year has been hampered by inexperience and injuries. Colorado State is at least familiar with forms of the option since it plays Air Force annually.

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