He doesn't always pick up blitzes. He misreads defenses, and sometimes throws to the wrong receiver or mixes up Coach George Welsh's signals.

But Marco Antonio Pagnanelli is the Navy quarterback, and the Midshipmen's fortunes depend as much on him as they do on record-setting tailback Eddie Meyers or all-America kicker Steve Fehr.

It's been a long journey from the Golden West Junior College (Calif.) bench to starting for Navy, but Pagnanelli arrived in style in his second start Saturday against Air Force.

He rushed for 106 yards on 16 carries, scored a touchdown and completed seven of 10 passes for 88 yards and another touchdown, as the Midshipmen won for the first time in three weeks, 30-13.

After the game, what Pagnanelli wanted to talk about most wasn't his running or passing, but his ability to read Welsh's signals.

Like many teams, including the Redskins, the Midshipmen signal their offensive plays to the quarterback.

"Saturday was the first time they signaled the plays into me, and I thought I did all right," Pagnanelli said.

Well, almost all right.

"When the game got close, I wasn't taking any chances with him, and so I sent the plays in with a messenger," Welsh said. "I still can't understand how he can memorize more than 100 chemistry symbols, but can't remember the 25 signals we have."

"I'm trying," Pagnanelli said.

After spending two seasons at Golden West, Pagnanelli transferred to Navy, but was ineligible last season. As a result, he is a sophomore at the academy, but a junior in eligibility.

Pagnanelli began spring practice as the fifth-string quarterback. By the season opener, he was alternating with starter Tom Tarquinio, and against Michigan he began asserting himself. He started the following week against Yale, and after his performance against Air Force became Welsh's starter.

"He's progressed faster that we had expected," Welsh said. "He's still having trouble reading signals, but he's our best passer and he's such a good runner. He's also started taking charge more out on the field and become a leader."

With Meyers churning his way toward the Navy career rushing record, and freshmen Napoleon McCallum and Rich Clouse backing him up, Navy hasn't had much trouble running the football.

Passing it is what has Welsh concerned. "Our best pass play now is for Pagnanelli to go back and then scramble," the coach said, only partly in jest.

Pagnanelli, 6-feet, 202 pounds, is built more like a running back than a quarterback and had scrambles of 25 and 23 yards to set up scores against Air Force.

"If a pass is called, I think pass all the way," Pagnanelli said. "But if I can't find a receiver, I'll take off."

Because of his scrambling ability, Pagnanelli has been sacked only four times, and three of those were off blitzes that he failed to read.

He has completed 56 percent of his passes (28-50 for 309 yards) and has thrown only one interception.