At 3-0, balanced Mids on solid footing

Offense, defense, special teams have all sparked Navy's strong start

September 23, 2006|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,Sun reporter

In the opener against East Carolina, Navy's offense clicked early, then made enough mistakes to keep things close, then sealed a 28-23 victory by running out the clock. Next against Massachusetts, the defense saved a turnover-filled offense by forcing two late miscues to clinch a one-point win. And in last week's 37-9 rout at Stanford, the special teams were nearly flawless.

Navy (3-0) can't help but feel confident. They don't know where the next big play is coming from, yet the Midshipmen have developed that feeling that somehow it will happen.

Over the next four weeks, starting with today's visit by defending Conference USA champion Tulsa and continuing through homecoming Oct. 14 against Rutgers - off to its best start in 25 years - Navy will test its mettle with a senior-laden team that entered the season expecting much success.

The Mids see themselves in need of considerable polish. They also sense the entire squad, not just the triple-option attack, is along for the sharpening.

"In the past sometimes, it's been the offense rolling up so many points that our defense didn't have to play that great, or the special teams made some mistakes but it really didn't matter," Navy senior linebacker Tyler Tidwell said. "It's nice to be able to win football games like that. But you've got a lot more overall team confidence when you're well-rounded. We need to stay like that."

"It used to be one side of the ball was on. Last week, everybody was hitting on all four cylinders at some point during the night," senior quarterback Brian Hampton said. "We're becoming synergistic."

Given the way the offense sputtered at times with a struggling passing game and sloppy ball-handling in the first two games, it's easy to forget the Mids are still running their offense when they have the ball. The nation's top rushing team in two of the past three seasons is ranked No. 2 on the ground, with an average of 346.3 yards.

The attack finally came together in last week's win at Stanford. Navy scored on seven of 10 possessions, junior slotback Reggie Campbell and junior fullback Adam Ballard each cracked the 100-yard rushing mark, and Hampton loosened up after a costly fumble in the first half. He completed eight of 11 passes, which enhanced the ground game throughout a dominant second half.

"[The Mids] kind of hold you hostage with the option, looking to throw the football," Tulsa coach Steve Kragthorpe said.

Navy also is turning games in its favor without the offense as the sole dictator. The 3-4 defense is allowing 17.3 points per game. Starting with a deep rotation of seniors up front, the Mids have used constant slants and stunts to stifle opponents between the tackles and are allowing an average of 86.3 rushing yards, which is 34th among 119 Division I-A teams against the run.

One week after securing a 21-20 victory over Massachusetts by making three defensive stands in the fourth quarter, Navy allowed a field goal early and a meaningless touchdown late to Stanford. The Mids have given up 21 second-half points this season.

"There's definitely more balance between offense and defense. We're feeding off of each other," senior nose tackle Larry Cylc said. "I think the special teams have been good in every game. That's a constant that hasn't been there [in the past]."

The Mids are performing in every way on special teams.

Their kickoff return unit is ranked eighth with a 29.9-yard average, and Campbell has broken off long runs that affected momentum in each of the past two games. Navy's coverage teams, which are allowing just 19.2 yards per kickoff return and 3.8 yards per punt return, caused two turnovers that produced two quick scores at Stanford. Kickers Joey Bullen and Matt Harmon combined to go 3-for-3 on field-goal attempts last week.

"We've found ways to win. It's encouraging," coach Paul Johnson said. "I think when teams get that winning attitude, that's what happens. You have to be happy at 3-0. But we can't keep making it hard to find a way to win. We haven't come close to playing our best game yet."

Over the next four weeks, after which it has a bye, then its annual meeting with Notre Dame, Navy could find out if some goals expressed by its veteran players in early August are attainable. Goals such as setting a school record with 11 victories or winning a fourth consecutive Commander In Chief's trophy.

"This is a tough stretch coming up," senior linebacker Rob Caldwell said. "We need to use [Stanford] as a steppingstone and not go backwards."

gary.lambrecht@baltsun.com

Today's game

Matchup -- Tulsa (2-1) at Navy (3-0)

Time -- 1:30 p.m.

TV -- CSTV

Radio -- 1090 AM, 1430 AM, 1500 AM, Sirius 130

Line -- Navy by 4 1/2

Series -- Navy leads, 1-0

Last meeting -- Navy beat Tulsa, 29-0, on Sept. 18, 2004

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