- The Washington Times - Friday, October 17, 2003

Navy coach Paul Johnson is fond of telling his team whatever opponent the Midshipmen are playing is “the biggest game of the year.” But he also adds a little spice to the statement each week, giving the Mids further reason to heed his words.

Against Air Force, Johnson reminded his team it hadn’t taken home the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy since 1981. A 28-25 win over the Falcons two weeks ago put Navy in position to win the title this year.

Going into last week’s game at Vanderbilt, the Mids hadn’t won back-to-back games or knocked off a BCS conference team since 1999. The 37-27 win over the Commodores took care of those streaks.

After Wednesday’s practice, Johnson hammered home this week’s message: The Mids (4-2) have never beaten Rice at their home stadium in Houston.

“There isn’t anyone else to be focused on,” Johnson said. “That’s who we play this week, and we’re trying to win another game. I don’t know how long it’s been since Navy has won three in a row — it’s been a while.”

The last time was in 1997, giving the Mids another reason to adopt Johnson’s view. And they have.

Senior Shane Todd, starting at center in place of injured August Roitsch, attributes the team’s strong start (with nearly the same personnel as last year’s 2-10 team) to Johnson’s philosophy.

“We were focused week to week last year, but this year we’ve seen positive results,” Todd said. “We gain more confidence each week and believe in the coaches and each other that much more.”

Cornerback Shalimar Brazier is another senior who suffered through a 3-30 introduction to Navy football.

“We can’t get ahead of ourselves and get carried away with what we’ve done so far,” Brazier said. “We’re halfway through the season and have to keep doing what we’ve done to get to this point.”

What may have more to do with the Mids’ best start since 1996 than Johnson’s pep talks is a second year in his system. The Mids have consistently run the ball, even behind what has turned into a patchwork offensive line in recent weeks. Only one offensive lineman, Nick Wilson, has played every game in the same position, and two other starters have shifted to a new position. Backups fill the final two line spots.

Kyle Eckel showed no ill effects during the shakeup, rushing for at least 100 yards in the past three games. In the same time, the team’s ground game has proven capable against stronger opponents than Eastern Michigan and VMI, teams the Mids ran all over early in the season. Their 314.8 yards a game remains tops in the nation with strong showings against more legitimate defenses.

But a successful switch to a 3-4 alignment and contributions from unexpected youngsters have powered the Mids’ defense more than a new attitude. Added speed on the field is the catalyst for a unit allowing 12 fewer points and causing nearly three turnovers a game.

An attitude adjustment for a team that won three games the last three years couldn’t hurt, and Johnson has been successful in that respect.

“What they did last week is over,” Johnson said. “What’s the old saying, ‘How do you like me now?’ Go down there and lose [today] and see how you like me now.”

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