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Winning Is Navy's Best Option

Former Georgia coach Jim Donnan, now a college football analyst for ESPN, faced Johnson's offense when the Bulldogs played Georgia Southern in the 2000 season opener. Even with future NFL Pro Bowl players Kendrell Bell, Richard Seymour and Marcus Stroud on defense, Georgia allowed the Eagles to run for 190 yards in the Bulldogs' 29-7 victory.

"I've always been a lot more concerned about players than systems," Donnan said. "Execution has always been a real staple of his offense. I think Paul Johnson would be successful if he was coaching in the NFL. He's just a thorough coach. He knows the option like [Southern California offensive coordinator] Norm Chow knows the passing game."

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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Ralph Friedgen, whose Maryland team faces Navy next season, has no doubts about Johnson.

"Paul is a good football coach," Friedgen said. "Paul can coach any offense. What happens is these guys get labeled and everyone is afraid to give them a job at a major school because they are going to run that offense. It doesn't matter what you do; it matters how you do it."

Johnson scoffs at the belief that his offense has reached its ceiling in college football. Johnson said the offense gives his team an advantage because opponents don't see the option attack very often and have problems preparing for it. The offense also relieves pressure on the defense by generating time-consuming possessions.

"How are you going to beat Florida State and Miami doing the same thing?" Johnson said. "You're not going to out-recruit them."

For now, Johnson said he's content coaching his offense at Navy. But in the back of his mind, he, too, wonders how the option would work at one of college football's powers.

"I'd like to say 'I told you so' to the people who say you can't win doing this," Johnson said. "I think that would be hilarious."

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