- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 29, 2004

SAN FRANCISCO — Today’s Emerald Bowl between Navy and New Mexico will be a chess match between grandmasters who set their pieces in unusual positions.

On one side of the board is offensive GM Paul Johnson of the Midshipmen. On the other is defensive GM Rocky Long of the Lobos.

Under Johnson, an authority on option football, Navy (9-2) is third in the nation in rushing, pounding out slightly more than 291 yards a game. The Mids enter with impressive performances in their past two games, racking up 96 points and more than 1,000 yards in routs of Rutgers and Army.

“[Johnson] is the best play-caller I’ve ever seen on tape,” Long said. “I have watched each of their games about six times each, but I am watching the Delaware game … a play comes out that I haven’t seen in any of their other games. I’m planning on seeing stuff in the third quarter that they haven’t run all year. He’s been running this offense for 20 years so he’s got stuff we’ve never seen.”

New Mexico (7-4) has won five straight and has wins over bowl teams Texas Tech and Wyoming. The Lobos’ losses were at Oregon State and Air Force and at home to Washington State and Utah.

New Mexico ranks eighth in the nation in rush defense, yielding less than 94 yards a game. Johnson credits Long with inventing the quirky 3-3-5 formation while he was defensive coordinator at Oregon State.

The defense replaces a linebacker from a more conventional 3-4 with a third safety and allows for more creativity as Long moves his players around before the snap. Blitzes come from all directions. It’s a defense quite like Navy’s offense in terms of being unusual. Opponents might only see it once a year.

“They blitz and stunt a lot,” Johnson said. “He’s the guy who was kind of the guru behind the whole deal, so he knows how to fix it and what he’s trying to accomplish. If you execute, it could be good for you. If you don’t, then it will be good for them. There are going to be a lot of big plays for somebody.”

Long’s name hasn’t been mentioned despite the myriad coaching openings in college football. While hot names like Urban Meyer and Bobby Petrino have been courted by high-profile institutions or given large raises to stay, Long is quietly producing the most successful era in New Mexico’s less-than-stellar football history.

The Lobos are in a bowl game for the third straight season for the first time, and one more victory will tie Long with Roy Johnson for the most in program history (41). Johnson coached the Lobos from 1920 to 1930.

Long, who replaced Dennis Franchione in 1997 when the latter bolted for Texas Christian, already has coached in a school-record 84 games.

While New Mexico players and coaches feel a win here is a must because the Lobos haven’t won a bowl game in 43 years, there also is plenty of motivation for Navy. The Mids can finish with 10 wins for only the second time in school history — and the first in 99 years. Coupled with an 8-5 mark, the 18 victories also would tie the school mark for wins in back-to-back seasons.

Both programs feel a bowl win would be the next step in the building process. For Navy players, there would be a sense of vindication. Players and coaches from opposing teams have hinted Navy’s weak schedule is part of the reason for its recent success. While the Mids have defeated teams from the ACC (Duke), SEC (Vanderbilt) and Big East (Rutgers) in the same season for the first time, none of the team’s nine wins were against bowl-eligible foes.

“Last year was an important steppingstone, getting to a bowl game,” sophomore linebacker David Mahoney said. “Now we’re trying to improve our program. We need to win a bowl game to do that.

“[Winning] is very important. People might say last year was good but we got to the [Houston Bowl] and lost [to Texas Tech], and they might say it was a fluke. Maybe we’re not good enough to play at that next level. We need to win a bowl game to show we can play with anybody.”

Today’s game at SBC Park will resemble a home contest for the Mids, and not just because a portion of the Brigade will march on the field before the game and the team will wear its home uniforms.

Navy has sold 16,200 tickets for the game, assistant athletic director Scott Strasemeier said. That number not only dwarfs the 2,000 sold by New Mexico but is by far the most by any team that has participated in this bowl, which is in its third year.

Notes — Fullback Kyle Eckel needs 115 rushing yards to move into third place on Navy’s all-time list, behind Napoleon McCallum and Chris McCoy. Aaron Polanco is two touchdowns shy of Temple’s Walter Washington for the most rushing touchdowns by a quarterback. Safety Josh Smith will finish the season with the team lead in tackles for the third consecutive season. …

Navy kicker Geoff Blumenfeld grew up in Granite Bay, Calif., near Sacramento, and will have about 90 supporters in the stands. His parents rented a 53-person bus to help some of his family members to make the trip.

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