- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 9, 2006

Every year, teams invite (i.e. pay) Division I-AA teams to their stadiums for early season tuneups. Last week three of those guests — Richmond, Montana State and Portland State — scored major upsets against Duke, Colorado and New Mexico.

Navy’s task today at Navy-Marine Corps Stadium will be to not fall prey to Massachusetts, currently ranked No. 9 in I-AA and one of the most consistent programs at that level. After the upsets, there has been plenty of talk about how much of a difference exists between I-A and I-AA schools.

“Any time someone raises up and wins against a I-A opponent it certainly rekindles the discussion,” Massachusetts coach Don Brown said. “The one that was really shocking was Colorado [losing to Montana State]. The bottom line is it depends on the matchups.

“I think Richmond is as good as advertised. They had a good defense last year and have a lot of guys back. It is one of those things where sometimes teams think they should win and maybe don’t prepare as hard.”

The Midshipmen have spent the week answering questions about overlooking I-AA teams and have, of course, responded with predictable answers. But what might separate the players in Annapolis from the ones in say, Boulder, Colo., is most of them were recruited by and some were considering I-AA programs as seniors in high schools.

Inside linebacker Rob Caldwell chose Navy instead of walking on at Purdue or Indiana, but I-AA Indiana State and Southern Illinois were also among his suitors. Fellow linebacker David Mahoney verbally committed to Western Kentucky before changing his mind and choosing the Mids. Starting quarterback Brian Hampton ultimately chose Navy over Northwestern, but Southern Illinois was also in the picture.

“A lot of us were recruited by I-AA teams so we know they are on the same level as us,” Caldwell said. “And I think the fact that we were beat by a I-AA team when we were freshmen (eventual I-AA champion Delaware), this is not someone we can overlook. It is all Division I football and they have a lot of transfers.”

While the two programs have never met, there is plenty of familiarity for the Minutemen. Brown and Navy coach Paul Johnson matched strategies when Johnson was at Georgia Southern and Brown was the defensive coordinator for Massachusetts. The Minutemen won 55-43 in the 1998 I-AA championship game, but Johnson exacted revenge the next season in a quarterfinal matchup.

Brown’s current team is also plenty familiar with the triple option. Atlantic-10 member Rhode Island is coached by former Georgia Southern head man Tim Stowers, whom Johnson replaced in Statesboro, Ga.

“We’re so different from Rhode Island. We line up the same way sometimes, but Rhode Island plays at least half their snaps with a tight end and they do some different things,” Johnson said. “They run a lot of different stuff. It’s similar, but not the same.”

Massachusetts has not defeated a I-A program since beating Ball State in 1984, but it has faced a I-A opponent every year since 2001, including a 34-28 loss at Army last season. This year’s team is led by tailback Steve Baylark, whom Johnson recruited while at Georgia Southern. Baylark is trying to become the third running back in I-AA history to rush for 1,000 yards in four consecutive seasons.

“I think [playing Army close] does help to some degree, but we have good players and we are confident we can compete,” Brown said. “But Navy is not Army. They are in a different stratosphere on that level. I think our guys view it as a chance to compare ourselves against the upper crust.”

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