Navy Coach Paul Johnson often says there isn't much difference between good Division I-AA football teams and mid-level Division I-A teams. "I don't think they're going to line up and play with Southern California, but neither are we," Johnson says.
Defending Division I-AA national champion Delaware, the Midshipmen's opponent in Saturday's homecoming game at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, already has proved it can play against Navy. The Blue Hens have won six of their 12 games against the Midshipmen, including a 21-17 victory in Annapolis last season, the biggest blemish in Navy's 8-5 season.
"They have good players; don't kid yourself into thinking we're physically superior," Johnson said. "They beat us last year; that ought to be proof enough."
The Blue Hens' roster is littered with Division I-A transfers. Quarterback Sonny Riccio was Missouri star Brad Smith's backup the past two seasons. Senior free safety Garron Bible started eight games at Notre Dame last year. Wide receiver David Boler played at Southern Cal; tight end Justin LaForgia came from Cincinnati; and wide receiver Joe Bleymaier transferred from Arizona State. Delaware also has two transfers from Louisville and one from West Virginia.
Johnson, who coached at Division I-AA powerhouse Georgia Southern for five years, said building a program through Division I-A transfers can be rewarding but also risky, which is why he seldom accepted players from other schools.
"We got calls. I got calls all the time," Johnson said. "I remember Mike Price called me from Washington State and told me he had a wide receiver that was leaving. I asked him why he was leaving, and he said he got in trouble. I asked where he was from, and he said Los Angeles. I was like, 'Why in the world does a receiver from L.A. want to come to Statesboro, Georgia for one year? And why would I want to listen to him complain about not getting the ball?' I just didn't do it."
It has worked for Delaware, which has won six games in a row and is ranked No. 3 in Division I-AA in the USA Today/ESPN coaches' top 25 poll. Riccio, who replaced Georgia Tech transfer Andy Hall at quarterback, is one of only four Delaware players who have thrown for 300 yards or more in a game more than once (Oakland Raiders quarterback Rich Gannon also did it). Riccio has thrown for 1,397 yards and 10 touchdowns, and Boler and LaForgia are two of his favorite targets.
The Blue Hens (6-1) have built enough depth to overcome the loss of five starters to injuries, including leading rusher Sean Bleiler, who tore knee ligaments in the fifth game, against Maine. Delaware is playing without starting center Chris Edwards and defensive tackle Bryan Jennings, who are both out because of mononucleosis.
"Delaware is probably as big-time of a [Division I-AA] program as there is," Johnson said.
Aside from playing Notre Dame, Johnson said Delaware's schedule isn't much different from the one Navy (6-1) has played. Atlantic 10 teams have already pulled off two road upsets of Division I-A teams this season -- New Hampshire beat Rutgers, 35-24, on Sept. 11 and Maine beat Mississippi State, 9-7, on Sept. 18. William & Mary nearly beat North Carolina, losing 49-38 in its opener.
Saturday's game will be the Blue Hens' last chance to beat a Division I-A opponent until they play at Maryland in 2008.
"They weren't very excited to play us last year," Delaware Coach K.C. Keeler said. "Maybe we snuck up on them. I don't think they realized we could do that."