- The Washington Times - Friday, September 22, 2006

Steve Kragthorpe inherited a downtrodden college football program when he accepted the coaching job at Tulsa in December 2002.

The Golden Hurricane had won one game in each of the previous two seasons. Kragthorpe, who worked under Washington Redskins assistant head coach-defense Gregg Williams as quarterbacks coach with the Buffalo Bills before moving to Tulsa, proved to be the right man for the job. He has turned Tulsa into a winner, and now the task is maintaining the program’s sudden success.

Sound familiar?

“Oh yeah, I think they are going to have a good program,” said Navy coach Paul Johnson, who is trying to maintain his own reclamation project. “I think Steve does a good job, he’s a good coach and they have a good staff. They have good skill guys, they have good players and they are going to be consistently good.”

Johnson and Kragthorpe will meet today as the Midshipmen (3-0) play host to the Golden Hurricane (2-1) at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium. Three years ago, Kragthorpe engineered the nation’s biggest turnaround, winning eight games in his first season — a seven-game improvement. Johnson’s squad improved by six wins in 2003, from 2-10 to 8-5.

Navy won at Tulsa 29-0 the next season, but Kragthorpe’s team was en route to a 4-8 finish.

Now both programs are rolling. Tulsa won a Conference USA title last season and defeated a giant in the mid-major community, Fresno State, in the Liberty Bowl. Navy won at least eight games for the third straight season and also toppled one of the consistent winners outside the BCS, Colorado State, in the Poinsettia Bowl.

Both teams return at least two-thirds of their starters from last season (Navy has 16 back, Tulsa 18), and hopes are higher in Tulsa, Okla., and Annapolis than they have been in quite some time.

“There are high expectations from everyone,” Tulsa quarterback Paul Smith said. “Even though we’re upset we’re not undefeated, TU hasn’t been 2-1 in a long time [since 1998]. Just the steps we’ve made here in my four years have been incredible.”

The Golden Hurricane soundly defeated Stephen F. Austin and North Texas but are not undefeated because of a 49-24 whipping at Brigham Young. Smith averaged 219 passing yards a game last season and is at 225.7 this year. He works behind an experienced offensive line, and the Golden Hurricane are the most balanced team the Mids’ defense has faced this season.

But Tulsa’s defense, which returns 10 starters from last season, could be the key. The Golden Hurricane are ranked 20th in the country in total defense, but that figure may be misleading. Twice the unit has been dominant, holding Stephen F. Austin and North Texas to 185 and 89 total yards, respectively. It was also awful once, as BYU carved up the Golden Hurricane for 467 yards.

The Mids cleared a large hurdle last week, winning on the road at a respected BCS program (Stanford). Johnson also thinks the win against East Carolina will look better and better as the season progresses.

But this clearly will be the toughest challenge so far for the Mids, who are trying to improve to 4-0 for the second time in three seasons but only the third time in the past 27. Neither of these teams is often mentioned with the likes of Fresno State, Colorado State and Texas Christian as consistent mid-major powers, but both are getting closer.

The Horned Frogs moved out of C-USA during the recent ACC-inspired conference shuffle, and the Golden Hurricane moved in. With another conference title, Tulsa could claim TCU’s old distinction as the league’s top program.

Where the Mids fit in the national college football landscape might be clearer after today.

“I don’t know where people have [Navy] ranked, but just the way they play consistently and have been successful, we consider them one of the elite programs outside the BCS,” Smith said. “It is a great opportunity to play against them. They are a lot like us as we try to establish ourselves.”

Replied Johnson: “I think the teams are probably pretty similar. [Smith] is probably dead on.”

MIDSHIPMEN KEYS

1. Don’t stop now — Dominating Stanford on the road ranks as one of the better wins in the Paul Johnson era, and the Midshipmen could certainly use any momentum from their time on the Farm today. Tulsa is one of the three best teams the Mids will face during the regular season.

2. Numbers, no names — Like the Cardinal, the Golden Hurricane are one of the better offensive teams the Mids will face. As they did last week, the Mids need to see the front of players and not have to read last names while chasing them (aka limit the big plays).

3. Stay special — Navy’s coverage teams on special teams have ranged from solid to spectacular (especially since a UMass return touchdown was nullified by a penalty). Reggie Campbell’s big return last week was a bonus. Winning the special teams battle again would help tremendously.

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