Navy's Johnson avoids richly deserved limelight

December 03, 2006|By DAVID STEELE

PHILADELPHIA — PHILADELPHIA-- --It takes a lot to get Paul Johnson to talk much about himself, much less brag about himself, after a game. Not even the events of yesterday's 107th Army-Navy game were a good enough reason to turn the spotlight in that direction.

A few reporters tried, after he led Navy to a fifth straight victory over Army - this time, 26-14, at Lincoln Financial Field - and improved his record against the service academies to 9-1 in his five years in Annapolis. Johnson didn't even want to take credit for the outgoing senior class being perfect in four years against Army and Air Force.

Was that a big motivation, Johnson was asked afterward, seeing the players he brought in early in his tenure on the brink of achieving those milestones?

"I think so. I thought we really played well defensively in the second half," he said. "We let them drive the ball a little bit in the third quarter." It was a very informative answer; it just wasn't the answer to the question.

Flip it around, pass it off to his players, do a little misdirection. That's how Johnson does it, the way his quarterbacks move the ball around. You know, one of the four different quarterbacks who will have started in a bowl game in a four-year span, not including the one who started this season but was injured midway through and replaced by a sophomore.

Johnson, 37-24 with the Midshipmen, had given the answer to the biggest question of the week already: No, he wasn't paying attention to the reports tying him to openings at big-name programs. Not North Carolina State, not Alabama and not Miami.

"If we beat Army," he said dryly last week, "they'll probably keep me around for one more year." The speculation will only speed up now, though, the idea that when Army-Navy returns to Baltimore next year, Johnson won't be around for it.

Even the guys who won't play for him again after the Meineke Car Care Bowl later this month don't want to see that.

"Yeah, you want to keep him around. You hope he's going to come back," said wide receiver Jason Tomlinson, one of many seniors who made huge plays in their final Army game. "We try not to really think about it."

Thinking about it right then brought the only thing close to a frown he had afterward; everything else yesterday, including his game-breaking 33-yard touchdown run on a reverse, had lit up his face.

"He's meant everything," Tomlinson said of his coach. "He's the one who started it." Proof of what kind of job Johnson has done was standing on the opposite sideline. All Bobby Ross has done everywhere he's been is win, but three years in, winning at Army has eluded him. Johnson has found the buttons in Annapolis that Ross hasn't at West Point.

Ross did have the Black Knights - in a five-game skid and a turnover machine going in - playing above themselves yesterday, even more than usual in a rivalry in which the proverbial record books are thrown out. How deep Navy had to dig down for this is reflected in the fact that the score was tied at 7 before Tomlinson's third-quarter touchdown. And that Army missed a field goal late in the quarter that could have closed it to 14-10. And that Army gutsily marched down for one final score when the game was out of reach.

One by one, though, that senior class stepped up, most notably the eight defensive starters. Linebackers Rob Caldwell, David Mahoney and Tyler Tidwell combined for 24 tackles, three tackles for losses and two sacks. Tidwell had both sacks, on consecutive plays, the second in the end zone for a fourth-quarter safety and the Mids' final points. And cornerback Keenan Little had the interception and touchdown return that broke Army's backs.

All week, the seniors talked about how important it was to set this precedent of success, and in one of the tougher tests from an opponent in the Commander in Chief's Trophy series, they lived up to their expectations. It was a testament to their resolve, and to their desire to do what every entering class at every college says it wants to do, but can't always do: create a legacy.

"We can always symbolize ourselves as the class that helped change things around," Little said, "and to go 8-0 [against Army and Air Force], it just helps to show, to go down in the history books, that there is something special about our class."

But it also was a testament to the man who brought them there to reverse Navy's downturn in the years before his arrival.

"If he goes somewhere else, we wish the best of luck to him," Mahoney said of Johnson. "And whoever they would bring in, we'd hope he's able to do as much for us as he did for us."

david.steele@baltsun.com

Read David Steele's blog at baltimoresun.com/steeleblog.

David Steele -- Points After

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