- The Washington Times - Monday, December 29, 2003

HOUSTON — Navy won a numbers game just to get into today’s Houston Bowl — there were quite a few bowl eligible teams without a conference affiliation to a postseason game that are home for the holidays.

Having survived that numbers game with their first bowl bid since 1996, the Midshipmen face Texas Tech and a more daunting numbers challenge — the most prolific passing attack in the country.

The Red Raiders’ offensive numbers are astounding: six games with more than 600 passing yards, two games with eight touchdowns through the air and a season-best 961 all-purpose-yards against Ole Miss in September. Quarterback B.J. Symons averages nearly 450 yards passing a game and has thrown for a national best 48 touchdowns.

“I’m not sure many people give us a chance to stay in this thing,” Navy coach Paul Johnson said. “But we took a vote and decided to play the game anyway.”

Johnson hopes statistics lie. In the case of Texas Tech, they may be a little misleading.

The Red Raiders (7-5) average nearly 100 more passing yards a game than their closest competition, but their average yards a catch is a middle-of-the-pack 12.2. Even Navy (8-4), with the fourth worst passing offense in the country ranks higher with 17.8 yards a catch.

But Texas Tech coach Mike Leach has Symons throwing the ball more than 60 times a game and twice Symons attempted more than 70 passes in an outing. The sheer magnitude of attempts inflates his passing yards but does the same to his interceptions. Symons’ 21 picks are the most by any of the top-60 quarterbacks in the country.

“Stats are going to be a little bit deceiving,” Johnson said. “Especially when you’re playing for five hours a game.”

One stat Johnson hopes remains true is Texas Tech’s lack of success against teams that pile up yardage on the ground. In games where the Red Raiders’ allowed more than 200 yards rushing, they were 1-4. The Mids have been held under 200 yards rushing only twice this season and have eclipsed 300 yards eight times.

But even if the Mids reach the 200-yard mark, they’ll have to stop Texas Tech from matching every score. It will be the job of Navy’s secondary, a unit often overlooked because of the defense’s successful transition to a more athletic front-seven, to keep the Red Raiders from running away with the game.

The unit of cornerbacks Shalimar Brazier and Vaughn Kelley and safeties Eli Sanders and Josh Smith have been most successful when they quietly controlled the game with crisp tackling.

Success for the Mids’ defensive backs does not come through interceptions or vicious hits but rather their ability to limit the big play. Simply keeping receivers in front of them and strong fundamental tackling have forced opponents into extra snaps and given Navy’s front-seven more opportunities to be playmakers.

“A lot of pressure was put on [the secondary] this year because they let a lot of balls get behind them the year before,” linebacker Eddie Carthan said. “They’ve had to make some plays in the open field and they have been great in the red zone where they keep making the other team put it down and snap it again and work for their points.”

After missing the Army-Navy game because of an appendectomy just days before the game, Smith returned to practice Friday having missed two full weeks. The junior led the team in tackles entering the Army game and is the defensive backfield’s leader in his second full season as a starter.

His reacclimation to the game will have to come quickly if the Mids hope to keep the game close early. A few quick strikes by the Red Raiders would force Navy to match them. It also would force the Mids away from the run, a proven tool for success against Texas Tech.

“We respect their offense, but we’re not afraid of it,” Johnson said. “What’s the worst thing that can happen? They score 50? Everybody says they’re going to anyway so what’s the big deal?”

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