Though Navy's football team is off to its first 3-0 start in a quarter-century, Coach Paul Johnson was quick to put it in proper perspective yesterday.

"All that means is the worst we can finish is 3-8," he said. "What I told our team is that we could lose every game we play if we don't give a great effort because we're not at the level where we can just show up and win. But we've played well and gotten off to a good start and put ourselves in a good position."

Navy is coming off a 29-0 victory at Tulsa, the Midshipmen's first shutout against a Division I-A opponent since a 21-0 victory over Boston College in 1980 and the first on the road against a Division I-A team since blanking Virginia, 32-0, in 1978. Navy recorded a 7-0 victory over Division I-AA Lafayette in 1994.

There is no secret to Navy posting its best start since winning its first six games in 1979. The Midshipmen have done everything well, albeit against lower echelon teams, as Duke, Northeastern and Tulsa have collectively opened the season 1-7.

"We've made a lot of progress so far and we still haven't come close to playing a perfect game," said senior fullback Kyle Eckel, who ran for 98 yards and three touchdowns against Tulsa. "But we've played well enough to win, and that's what counts."

Senior quarterback Aaron Polanco has been effective with the triple-option attack that last year led the nation in rushing. This season, Navy is averaging 310.3 rushing yards per game, sixth in the country. The Midshipmen are ninth nationally in passing efficiency at 169.55 yards per game.

They have been even stronger defensively. The Midshipmen have not allowed a point in the fourth quarter and have stopped five of eight fourth-down plays.

Navy's defense has also gotten better the closer the opponent gets to the end zone. The Midshipmen have given up just three touchdowns and three field goals in the 10 times the other team has driven inside Navy's 20-yard-line.

But Navy must show it can be just as effective against better teams.

That starts with Vanderbilt (0-2) on Saturday at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis. The Commodores, coming off a 26-23 overtime loss at Ole Miss in a game they led by 13 in the third quarter, will present the toughest challenge so far. The Midshipmen posted a 37-27 victory over Vanderbilt last year in Nashville.

"We know how good Vandy is after playing them last year, and they know a lot about us," Eckel said. "I don't think there are going to be many surprises out there when we play."

The coaches know each other well: Paul Johnson guided Georgia Southern to four victories in six meetings against Bobby Johnson's Furman squad.

"Nobody is going to 'ooh' and 'aah' us because the reason why we're on the schedule is the other team thinks it's a game they're going to win," Paul Johnson said. "At Georgia Southern, us and Furman were pretty close in talent, but now I'm sure Vanderbilt thinks it has more talent and feels it's the better team."