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Winning Is Navy's Best Option

By Mark Schlabach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 30, 2004; Page D04

When Vanderbilt named Bobby Johnson its new football coach in December 2001, Tennessee Coach Phillip Fulmer called Paul Johnson, who had just been hired by Navy. "We were all scared Vanderbilt was going to hire you," Fulmer told him. "We didn't want to have to prepare for that stuff every year."

Johnson, now in his third season with the Midshipmen, had earned the reputation of an offensive guru during his five seasons at Georgia Southern, where he guided the Eagles to a 62-10 record and two Division I-AA national championships. But while Johnson was greatly respected by his peers, he wasn't getting much attention from athletic directors who were hiring football coaches.

Navy Coach Paul Johnson, quarterback Aaron Polanco are off to a 4-0 start using the triple-option spread offense. (Jonathan Newton -- The Washington Post)

When: 7:45 p.m. | W here: Falcon Stadium, Colorado Springs. | TV: ESPN. | Radio: WTEM-980, WNAV-1430.

Confuse Carney

On Sept. 4, Shaun Carney became the first Air Force freshman to start at quarterback in a season opener. He's the first Falcons freshman to start any game at quarterback since Dee Dowis started against Brigham Young in 1986. Carney has played well, completing 40 of 57 passes for 525 yards and 6 touchdowns with only 2 interceptions. Navy needs to disguise its coverages and defensive fronts to confuse the 19-year-old.

Watch the Fullbacks

Falcons Coach Fisher DeBerry has gone back to basics with his offense, using his fullbacks more liberally in the option game. The Falcons have run for 100 yards or more in each of the past three games -- 176 yards vs. Eastern Washington, 171 vs. UNLV and 106 vs. Utah. It's the first time since 1997 that Air Force has had three consecutive 100-yard rushing games. Carney and senior Dan Shaffer, a bruising 235-pound fullback, are the Falcons' top runners.

Block That Kick

Only Virginia Tech has blocked more kicks than Air Force since 1990. The Falcons have blocked 88 punts, field goal and extra-point attempts during the past 15 seasons, only one less than the Hokies' total. Air Force has one blocked kick this season -- defensive end Nelson Mitchell blocked an extra-point attempt against Eastern Washington. Navy hasn't allowed a field goal attempt to be blocked this season, but senior Geoff Blumenfeld is 0 for 4, missing attempts of 47 and 49 yards in last week's 29-26 win over Vanderbilt.

Fast Start

If Navy wins the coin toss, the Midshipmen might want to elect to play on offense first. Air Force has scored touchdowns on its opening drive in three of its first four games, including a 10-play, 80-yard touchdown drive in last week's 49-35 loss to No. 14 Utah. During the past 17 games, Navy has outscored opponents 137-40 in the first quarter.

Punch It In

With bruising fullback Kyle Eckel and quarterback Aaron Polanco running the spread option offense, Navy has been very successful inside its opponents' 20-yard line. The Midshipmen have scored touchdowns on 11 of their 15 trips in the red zone. Air Force has stopped opponents from scoring touchdowns on only two of 20 trips inside the Falcons 20.

It Isn't Rocket Science

There isn't much mystery in how to slow down Navy's offense. Eckel and Polanco have run or thrown the football 206 times in four games, more than 75 percent of the Midshipmen's 272 offensive plays. Navy wants to get senior slotback Eric Roberts more involved in the offense -- he has touched the ball 17 times in four games -- but he's the team's best blocker on the perimeter.

Extra Points

The Midshipmen have lost 11 of their past 12 games at Air Force, winning, 20-17, in 1996. . . . Navy is off to a 4-0 start for the first time since 1979 and for only the third time in 40 years. . . . Navy is one of only 10 Division I-A teams with a 4-0 record and is one of 23 undefeated teams.

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The offense that made Johnson's teams ultra-successful was also his biggest obstacle to landing a more lucrative job in the Division I-A ranks. Over the past 20 years, Johnson has fine-tuned the triple-option spread offense, which has become as rare in college football as two-way players. Most Division I-A schools have become enamored with the passing game, which many athletic directors believe makes for more exciting football and greater ticket sales.

"If people really believe that, I think it's really funny," Johnson said. "If you went to any school where we've been and asked the fans what they thought about our offense, they'd tell you they were pretty excited watching us play. To me, I'd think you'd just want to win games."

Johnson is getting the last laugh now. Since inheriting a Navy football program that had won one game in its two previous seasons -- the Midshipmen's 1-20 record in 2000 and 2001 was the worst two-year mark in the program's 122-year history -- Johnson has guided his teams to 14 victories. Navy was the second-most improved football team in Division I-A last year, improving from 2-10 to 8-5 and winning the Commander-In-Chief's Trophy for the first time since 1981. This season, the Midshipmen are 4-0 for the first time since 1979 entering tonight's nationally televised game against Air Force at Falcon Stadium.

"This is the best Navy football team I've seen in a long, long time," Air Force Coach Fisher DeBerry said.

DeBerry isn't the only one noticing Navy's vast improvement during the past two seasons. After last season, Johnson was contacted about interviewing for at least two coaching vacancies. Duke boosters inquired about his interest in replacing Blue Devils coach Carl Franks, but Johnson said he wasn't interested, and the school promoted interim coach Ted Roof. Johnson declined to identify the other school that contacted him. Navy gave Johnson a two-year contract extension last November, and his contract at the academy now runs through the 2009 season.

"Whenever I've taken a job, I've always tried to keep that job and tried to do the best I can," Johnson said. "If a job comes along that intrigues you, you deal with it then."

Even though Navy led the nation in rushing last season (the Midshipmen are ranked seventh through four games this year), some coaches wonder whether Johnson's offense would work at a more established program in one of the sport's power conferences. Air Force and Rice also run the triple option, but Navy is unique in employing spread formations. Because of the service academies' military requirements, and Rice's high academic standards, those programs have difficulty recruiting the same players as programs such as Oklahoma and Texas. So teams such as Air Force and Navy overcome their lack of talent and depth by running the option, which requires discipline and execution as much as strength and speed.

"What the option does is it neutralizes talent," South Carolina Coach Lou Holtz said. "People cannot defend the option just because they're athletic and because they're just going to run down the ballcarrier. They must play disciplined defense."

While Holtz coached at Notre Dame, he used the option attack to lead the Fighting Irish to the 1988 national championship. Holtz said he has been reluctant to use the option at South Carolina, even as the Gamecocks have struggled to score points during his tenure there. Holtz said his decision to use a pro-style passing offense is as much about recruiting as scoring.

"Why doesn't a school in the [Southeastern Conference] run it?" Holtz said. "One, you aren't going to be able to recruit the great quarterback, you're not going to get the great running back, you're not going to get the great receiver. You're going to have difficulty recruiting solid offensive linemen that want to pass protect and block and go to the NFL. It hurts you in recruiting. That's the reason we don't go to it more. I think if you have limited personnel, go do it, but understand you're not going to get any better personnel."

Johnson said his offense is tailor-made for running backs -- Georgia Southern's Adrian Peterson rushed for 6,736 yards in four seasons, the most in Division I history -- and mobile quarterbacks. Receivers often get single coverage from secondaries, giving them an opportunity to make big plays.

"I don't know why this offense wouldn't work with better players," Johnson said.

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