At Navy, success keeps on running

Rout of Colo. State caps 8-win season

College football


San Diego -- They didn't want to be known as the Navy football players who couldn't keep the program's upswing going. They won't be.

The 2005 Midshipmen, mildly regarded after graduation had swept away nearly all their starters, perpetuated the magic of the Paul Johnson regime, closing on a high in the final three games and setting a flock of Navy records in Thursday night's 51-30 romp over Colorado State in the inaugural Poinsettia Bowl.

"I know we were supposed to have growing pains, so some dropoff was expected," linebacker Jake Biles said. "But we were not content with anything but perfection. We're proud of our record [8-4]. We are definitely not embarrassed by the season we had."

No reason to be. Despite losing 18 starters, the Midshipmen shook off two heartbreaking losses early (one to Maryland) to win eight of their final 10 games, averaging 43.7 points in the final three, routs of Temple, Army and Colorado State.

Last year's quarterback, Aaron Polanco, who assisted with coaching this team, predicted before the season that "this team is going to get better as the year goes along." His prophecy certainly came true.

"Everybody was doubting us early," wide receiver Mike Yokitis said. "We struggled a little bit in the beginning, but this team came a long way. It was like night and day."

The future looks nothing except rosy. Quarterback Lamar Owens departs, but coach Paul Johnson's devastating triple-option offense did not skip a beat when Craig Candeto, then Polanco, graduated, and backup Brian Hampton has acquitted himself well in limited exposure.

This has been a squad dominated by sophomores and juniors. Among 17 other seniors leaving with Owens, the only starters are slotback Marco Nelson (80 yards rushing, two touchdowns Thursday night), Yokitis, offensive tackle Marshall Green, Biles and defensive captain Jeremy Chase.

Continuity of personnel has already been established under Johnson, whose squads have won eight or more games three straight times, a feat accomplished only once before in school history.

On offense, the entire line returns except Green; the best pass receiver, Jason Tomlinson, is a junior; and bullish fullback Adam Ballard (488 yards in three games as a starter) and the mercurial slotback Reggie Campbell both return.

On defense, only Chase and Biles will be gone, and punter Eric Shuey is also a senior.

Johnson is hedging on the early line for next year. "There are so many intangibles," he said. "I think we've got a good group of athletes and a good nucleus unlike this year, when we didn't have hardly anybody back. But each team has its own identity and it remains to be seen. We'll just keep recruiting."

Linebacker Rob Caldwell said the juniors "all talk about next year, about how it's going to be our team to carry on the tradition. There should be no reason why we can't if we don't get complacent."

In his final game, Owens was content to let the spotlight shine on the slotbacks, particularly the whippet-like Campbell, a sophomore whose 55-yard touchdown catch (the first of his career) from Owens on the first Navy play from scrimmage shocked the defenseless Rams. Colorado State had designed its defense to stop the quarterback and Ballard, so Navy - in true Johnson fashion - simply took what was available.

Mostly, that was Campbell, who amassed five touchdowns, tying a record for any major college bowl game (set four times previously, once by Barry Sanders), and career highs of 290 all-purpose and 116 rushing yards.

"Any time you're mentioned in the same breath with Barry Sanders, it's exciting," said Campbell, listed at 164 pounds but closer to 150. "It was a great experience."

The nation's leading rushing team, Navy stunned the Rams with Owens' first touchdown pass in five games to a wide-open Campbell down the middle. "I thought the play-action might be there," Johnson said.

After sputtering through the rest of the first quarter, the triple option got cranking with 20 straight points in the second and Colorado State (6-6) never seriously threatened thereafter despite 381 passing yards and three touchdowns thrown by quarterback Justin Holland.

"They were trying to take me and Ballard out of the game, Owens said, "and Reggie and Marco were in the right spots."

Linebacker Tyler Tidwell, who had three sacks among 12 tackles, was named the top defensive player in an offensive game. "We really wanted to do this for our seniors," he said. "Now, next year there are going to be high expectations, as there should be. High expectations breed high results."

Notes -- The two teams combined for a bowl record 1,183 yards. ... Owens finished the season with 2,179 yards in total offense, the fourth highest single-season total in Navy history.

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