Navy defense commanding respect

September 16, 2006|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,Sun reporter

Navy senior John Chan refused to call it an inferiority complex. But Chan conceded that he and his teammates are tired of the way the Midshipmen's defense is perceived. And the notion that the unit is merely the understudy toiling in the shadow of Navy's option offense, which Chan acknowledged as the team's foundation, has gotten old.

"It's something we talk about a lot," said Chan, a second-year starter at right defensive end who is second on the team with 15 tackles and leads Navy with two sacks. "The offense is the reason the program is where it is, but we want to make a name for ourselves, too. We think we have to prove something on every snap. It's a huge pride issue."

Going into tonight's third game of the season, at Stanford, the Navy defense finally is sticking out its chest. While the Mids have struggled to move the ball consistently during their 2-0 start, the defense has risen to the challenge.

Last week's 21-20 victory over visiting Massachusetts, a Division I-AA title contender, offered a compelling statement. Over the final three quarters, as Navy coach Paul Johnson grasped for offensive rhythm by shuffling senior quarterback Brian Hampton and sophomore backup Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada in and out of the game, the Navy defense buckled down and allowed only a pair of field goals.

The fourth quarter featured possibly the most meaningful finish by a Navy defense during Johnson's five seasons in Annapolis. Twice, the Mids forced turnovers to keep Navy ahead. The Mids then put UMass away on downs to end the contest.

Through two games, the Mids have allowed only 15 second-half points, and the defense is tweaking Navy's formula of using one of the sport's best rushing offenses to dictate the terms of most games.

Johnson said the Mids' second half against UMass was "the best half [of defense] we've played since I've been here. This wasn't one of those deals where we won by holding on to the ball. This one was for real."

"We got excited, knowing the [UMass] game was on us. That's a situation we don't see," senior defensive back Jeremy McGown said. "All of the pre-game press conferences are about how are you going to stop Navy's option? That pretty much implies that teams know they can put up a lot of points on our defense. It's been a slow process. Maybe we've earned a little respect."

With their typical lack of size and speed, the Mids are not built to be a defensive powerhouse, and players say they still hear pre-game taunts from opponents regarding their physical limitations. Over the past three seasons, they have allowed at least three touchdowns per game on average, and last year permitted 26.1 points per outing, which ranked 62nd out of 117 Division I-A schools.

The offense, predicated on cut-blocking, deception and reacting to the way a defense reads its keys, has outscored its opponents by an average of 8.3 points since 2003. Last year, Navy ranked 15th in the nation with a scoring average of 34.2 points.

This young season is shaping up differently.

"We know we're never going to get the big size you're looking for at a lot of positions. What we've tried to do is recruit speed and get faster at every position," said Navy defensive coordinator Buddy Green, who coached more than a dozen future NFL players in the same role at North Carolina State but enjoys no such luxury at the academy.

"With us, the old-school fundamentals - stay low, take care of your role - are even more urgent. The whole key is we need all 11 people always running to the ball."

A good day for the Navy defense has typically included giving ground without allowing big plays, and tightening up in the red zone to force field goals.

"We stick with defenses where we can line up easily, make our checks and play with our hair on fire. With our physical mismatches, that's what we have to do," linebacker Tyler Tidwell said.

"You love to see the offense put up 50 points, and we're not trying to be the center of the show. But we definitely try to gain a little motivation out of all the accolades the offense gets."

gary.lambrecht@baltsun.com

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Tonight's game

Matchup -- Navy (2-0) at Stanford (0-2)

Time -- 10 p.m.

TV -- MASN

Radio -- 1090 AM, 1430 AM

Series -- Tied, 1-1-1

Last meeting -- Stanford won, 41-38, at Navy on Sept. 10, 2005.

Navy offense vs. Stanford defense -- If it doesn't keep fumbling as it did in last week's squeaker over UMass, Navy should be able to move the ball against the Cardinal defense that has given up eight rushing TDs, is ranked last in the NCAA against the run and has surrendered 41.5 points per game. Only turnovers have slowed Navy's ground game, but the passing game has been stuck in park, as the Mids rank last in Division I-A with 13.5 yards per game. QB Brian Hampton, who is expected to start, might need to get untracked as a passer to keep Stanford honest up front. Navy kicker Joey Bullen could return after sitting out last week with a groin injury.

Navy defense vs. Stanford offense -- Navy defensive coordinator Buddy Green thinks senior QB Trent Edwards is a potential first-round NFL draft pick. Edwards, who has completed 61.3 percent of his attempts and threw for a career-high four touchdowns against San Jose State, will be looking often for senior WR Evan Moore (18.2 yards per catch). Navy's pass defense took a hit with the loss of senior S DuJuan Price to a leg injury, forcing the Mids to move CB Jeremy McGown to safety and insert sophomore Rashawn King at cornerback.

Gary Lambrecht

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