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December 22, 2010

Navy reveling in its return to glory

Every program has its glory years. Though some have repeated eras of great success, there always is one period that endures for generations as the most memorable stretch in a school's history.

Alabama has won 35 games over the past three seasons and is just a year removed from a national championship, but the 25-season reign of Bear Bryant always will define its glory years. At Ohio State, it was the Woody Hayes era. At Miami, it's the 1980s and early 1990s. Nebraska has had long periods of great success, but its glory years were a stretch of four seasons from 1994-97 that produced three national championships.

The 1950s and early '60s are considered the glory years for the United States Naval Academy. That was an era in which Navy went 12 seasons without a losing record, celebrated Heisman recipients Joe Bellino in 1960 and Roger Staubach in 1963, posted four top-five finishes and faced Texas in the Cotton Bowl for the '63 national championship.

In this century, Navy football has experienced a return to glory. Based on total victories (70), Navy currently is enjoying its most successful stretch in school history.

POINSETTIA BOWL

Navy (9-3) vs. San Diego State (8-4)
WHEN: Dec. 23, 8 p.m.
WHERE: Qualcomm Stadium, San Diego.
TV: ESPN (Mike Patrick will do play-by-play, with Craig James as the analyst).
THE LINE: San Diego State by 5.
RECORDS VS. BOWL TEAMS: Navy 4-2, San Diego State 1-4.
NCAA SCHEDULE STRENGTH: Navy 99th, San Diego State 93rd.
BCS RANKINGS: Neither is ranked.
OFFICIATING CREW: From the WAC.
COACHES: Navy - Ken Niumatalolo (1-2 in bowls); San Diego State - Brady Hoke (0-1 in bowls).
WHY YOU SHOULD WATCH: Hey, you need your college football fix, and it's the only game this day. But the Poinsettia offers more than that. The game matches successful offensive teams with contrasting styles. Navy, which uses a triple-option attack, is fifth in the nation in rushing, while San Diego State is 11th in the nation in passing offense. And for those spectators who really like a lot of scoring -- both teams average more than 30 points per game. The Midshipmen are aiming for their third 10-win season in seven years. Meanwhile, the Aztecs are seeking their first bowl victory since 1969.
KEY STATS: Behind QB Ryan Lindley and big-play WRs Vincent Brown and DeMarco Sampson, San Diego State averages 297.0 passing yards per game. The Aztecs' passing game figures to cause major problems for the Navy defense, which is ranked 66th in the country against the pass and has allowed 20 passing touchdowns. Of course, that was supposed to be a big problem against Missouri in last season's Texas Bowl, too, but it wasn't.
"I think we're at a pinnacle point in this program," said Navy quarterback Ricky Dobbs, who was trumpeted as a Heisman contender entering this season. "We're definitely on an incline. We're going in a different and new direction in terms of expecting to win and having the mentality that we can play with anybody we go against.

"If people watch our games and follow us, they will notice we're on the incline. We're just a scrappy team that will keep fighting until the end to get the win and never give up."

The Midshipmen have posted at least eight victories in eight consecutive seasons. Historically a perennial whipping boy for Notre Dame, Navy now has beaten the Irish three of the past four seasons. And during its eight-year run, Navy has posted victories over several teams from Big Six conferences, including Stanford, Connecticut, Pittsburgh, Rutgers and Wake Forest.

Despite its recent success, Navy's only top-25 finish in that span is a No. 24 ranking in 2004. But for a program that had managed just four wins or less 25 times in a 36-year span from 1965-2001, Navy at least has been re-established as a legitimate program.

John Feinstein, a noted sports journalist and an analyst on Navy football radio broadcasts, acknowledged that Navy's recent successes under former coach Paul Johnson and current coach Ken Niumatalolo are no small accomplishments.

"I don't think you can compare periods because of different circumstances," Feinstein said. "Obviously, Navy is not going to compete for national championships any more the way it once did. But given the current circumstances in college football, Navy's last eight years are as good as can be hoped for a service academy. To win seven Commander-in-Chief's trophies, beat Notre Dame three of four years and win eight games for eight straight years are remarkable numbers."

Perhaps most remarkable is that Navy has done that despite facing elements and obstacles that higher-profile programs around the country could use as convenient excuses for failure.

There are demanding academic standards and entrance requirements and no basket-weaving classes to ensure eligibility. "I know some places have courses just to keep guys eligible," Niumatalolo said. "Our guys are taking electrical engineering and some courses I can't even pronounce."

There is no redshirting for freshmen.

There is an uncompromising honor code that early this year led to the dismissal of one of the team's best players.

There is little promise of NFL stardom and little-to-no celebrity status in Annapolis, Md., where the vast majority of the local sports adulation is showered on the nearby Washington Redskins and Baltimore Ravens of the NFL.

Any potential recruit with the fortitude and without the ego to withstand those issues then must consider the post-graduate obligations. This is a time of war for the United States. Upon graduation, Navy players will be deployed to Afghanistan, Iraq and other countries around the globe.

"I think about that after the Army game and the bowl games," Niumatalolo said. "I don't know if I could do that and go through all they go through. They strap it on one more time, then go to Iraq or Afghanistan or other countries where there are smaller conflicts that we don't even know about. But they still come.

"I'm in awe of those people."

Service academy players have a five-year commitment to the Armed Forces after graduation, though a player with a chance to play professionally can apply to serve two years of active duty and six years in the Reserves. In addition, students have the option to leave the Academy after one or two years. Therefore, a player who might show pro potential can transfer to a civilian program without obligation.

"The most important thing they're battling is the way pro sports have changed," Feinstein said. "Back in the '50s and '60s, an officer in the Navy and Marines was making as much money or more than guys in the NFL. Clearly, that's not close to true anymore. That's why Navy, Army and Air Force can no longer compete for guys with an NFL future, because of the commitment when they graduate."

Indeed, there seem to be at least a dozen reasons Navy shouldn't be successful. Yet, a victory over San Diego State in the Poinsettia Bowl would clinch Navy's third 10-win finish in seven seasons. The only other 10-win season in school history came in 1905.

That raises the obvious question: With so many issues that could be viewed as deterrents, how has Navy reached and sustained such a high level of success?

"I truly believe all those obstacles make our kids stronger mentally," Niumatalolo said. "They don't care who gets the ball. Everybody just does their job. Football is the ultimate team sport. Everybody just has to do their job.

"When everybody has that mentality, it truly strengthens your team. That's always a rallying point. When you have enough kids that want to run through a wall, it's amazing what you can do as a group."

On most college campuses, athletics often are an avenue in which sacrifice, determination and discipline are learned, or at least honed. At the service academies, those qualities are part of every-day structure.

"You have to learn about the intangibles we have here, then accentuate them," Niumatalolo said. "We have the hard work and discipline that maybe you don't have at other schools. We try to incorporate that into our football players. It helps us in the long run. All the things you have to go through here make you a tougher person mentally.

"Someone might say, 'Your starting cornerback looks tired.' But he may have been on watch all night, so you don't get mad about it. It just makes them tougher. I truly believe that's how you overcome facing guys that may be stronger and faster."

With all the emphasis on self-discipline, it's no coincidence that Navy leads the nation in fewest yards penalized, is fourth in third-down efficiency and 11th in turnovers lost.

The Midshipmen also use the precision triple-option offense that Johnson installed in 2002, when he took over a Navy program that had won a total of three games in the three previous seasons combined. When Johnson left for Georgia Tech in '07, Niumatalolo was promoted and retained the triple-option system.

That style of play doesn't require 300-pound offensive linemen. It's also conducive to long, time-consuming drives that keeps an undersized defense off the field. That allows for fresher defensive players when they're on it.

Of course, discipline and hard work will only do so much. No system will work without talented players, and Niumatalolo said Navy's players are more talented than some might realize.

"There are enough good football players in the country that are good kids from great American families that want a chance to have a great education and play NCAA football," he said. "They're maybe a couple of inches short of what a BCS school wants, and instead of running a 4.4 or 4.5 [in the 40], maybe they run a 4.6."

Getting them to the Naval Academy is difficult. Keeping them there, even those who want to stay, isn't always easy.

In May, Marcus Curry, a slotback who rushed for 585 yards and caught 10 passes for 287 yards in '09, resigned from the Academy after being dismissed from the football team for rules violations. He'd become a subject of controversy last December when a drug test revealed marijuana usage. Curry said he was unaware a cigar he smoked contained marijuana.

Similar transgressions might result in a one-game suspension or be virtually ignored at some universities. But it violated Navy's drug policy. When Curry at first was allowed to remain at the Academy and on the team, it sparked outrage among current and former Midshipmen, who complained of a double standard for athletes.

"When you decide to come here, you have to know there are different rules than maybe at other places. We have to do what's best for the program and ultimately for Marcus. Hopefully, he'll learn from it," Niumatalolo said when the dismissal was announced.

Curry transferred to FCS school Texas State. Had he still been a Midshipmen, he might have helped them to one of their most memorable seasons ever. Navy's three losses came by a total of 14 points. The Midshipmen won seven of their last eight games, including a 35-17 blowout of Notre Dame.

Navy's other two recent victories over Notre Dame were by two-point margins.

When Navy ended a 44-year losing streak to Notre Dame with a 46-44 triple-overtime win in 2007, Feinstein compared it to the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team's upset of the powerful Soviet Union. The three wins in four years over Notre Dame evoked an even more astonishing comparison. "For Navy to ever beat Notre Dame is unbelievable," Feinstein said. "To win three out of four is slightly behind the miracle of landing on the moon in 1969."

That's just a little hyperbolic. But some might also think it's almost miraculous that Navy is listed with LSU, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Virginia Tech, USC, West Virginia and Boise State as the only FBS programs to post at least eight wins in each of the past eight seasons. Texas Tech and Boston College will join that list if they win their bowl games.

But it's no miracle. It's just takes sacrifice, discipline, hard work, courage and leadership. Those traits can be found in abundance at the service academies.

"The big difference is the type of players," Dobbs said. "We have guys that are magnificent people off the field and that translates over to the field. When I was a freshman here, I had some extraordinary young men that led me and showed me the right way. They're the reason this program is on the way up."

WHO GETS THE EDGE?

Navy rush offense vs. San Diego State rush defense: Navy averages 288.9 rushing yards to rank fifth in the nation. QB Ricky Dobbs has rushed for 860 yards in leading the triple option, while FB Alexander Teich has 825 and three others have rushed for more than 300 yards. San Diego State is 50th in run defense. The Aztecs were up and down against bowl teams, holding Missouri to 89 rushing yards but allowing 312 to Air Force, which also uses the triple option. Edge: Navy.

Navy pass offense vs. San Diego State pass defense: Dobbs doesn't throw that much, but he's often effective when he does. Dobbs has completed just 74 passes but averages 18.6 yards per completion. Senior WR Greg Jones leads with 30 receptions for 577 yards. The Aztecs are solid in pass defense, though they did allow 362 passing yards to Utah and 351 to Missouri. All-Mountain West CB Leon McFadden has 12 pass breakups and LB Miles Burris has 9.5 sacks to lead a pass rush that has 28 sacks. Edge: San Diego State.

San Diego State rush offense vs. Navy rush defense: The Aztecs' running game largely is dependent on freshman speedster Ronnie Hillman, who ranks 14th in the nation with 1,304 rushing yards. Hillman rushed for 228 yards against Missouri and 191 against Air Force, but he also was held to fewer than 70 yards in six games. C Trask Iosefa earned All-MWC honors. Navy gave up 261 rushing yards to Maryland in the opener and 292 to Air Force, but otherwise was solid against the run. LB Tyler Simmons has posted 124 tackles and DE Jabaree Tuani has 15.5 tackles for loss. Edge: Navy.

San Diego State pass offense vs. Navy pass defense: Few teams can match San Diego State's explosive receiving tandem of Vincent Brown and DeMarco Sampson. Both average better than 18 yards per catch and have more than 60 receptions. They've combined for 17 touchdowns. QB Ryan Lindley has three other receivers with at least 20 catches, too. Lindley has passed for 3,554 yards and 26 touchdowns and finished the regular season on a hot streak. In the final two games, he threw for 528 yards against Utah and 338 against UNLV. However, he has thrown 14 interceptions. Navy faced five teams that are ranked among the nation's top 30 in passing offense. All had more than 250 passing yards against the Middies. Four opponents threw for more than 300. The secondary doesn't get much help from the pass rush, either. Navy has managed just 18 sacks. Edge: San Diego State.

Navy special teams vs. San Diego State special teams: Aztecs K Abel Perez received All-MWC acclaim after converting 17-of-22 field-goal attempts, including a 53-yarder. He hit 14-of-16 inside 40 yards. P Brian Stahovich averages 45.7 yards and has killed 15 inside the 20. The Aztecs' return teams are OK, but kick coverage has been an area of concern. Navy has been good on kickoff returns. Marcus Thomas and Teich both average better than 21 yards. But kick coverage has been inconsistent for the Midshipmen. K Joe Buckley has hit 7-of-10 field-goal attempts, but none longer than 42 yards. P Kyle Delahooke averages 38.1 yards. Edge: San Diego State.

Navy coaches vs. San Diego State coaches: In three seasons as Navy's coach, Ken Niumatalolo has posted 27 victories and taken the Midshipmen to three bowl games. He's the first coach in school history to take Navy to bowl games in his first three seasons. Meanwhile, San Diego State coach Brady Hoke has led the Aztecs to their first bowl appearance since 1998. In just his second season, the Aztecs have posted their first winning record in 12 years. It's the second major reclamation project Hoke has pulled off. Previously, he took over a struggling Ball State program and led the Cardinals to a 12-2 finish in 2008. Edge: Navy.

X-factor: Controlling tempo of the game figures to be vital. San Diego State has scored 53 touchdowns this season, with 37 coming on drives that consumed less than three minutes. In fact, the Aztecs have had 14 "drives" of three plays or less. Consequently, San Diego State is ranked just 103rd in the nation in time of possession. Navy has had 16 scoring drives that used up at least 4 minutes. The Midshipmen keep the ball an average of 31:33 to rank 24th in the nation in time of possession.

Navy will win if: The Midshipmen must run their triple-option offense with great efficiency to stage long drives and keep the Aztecs' offense on the sideline. The Midshipmen also have to minimize the number of big plays the Aztecs make when they do have the football. Turnovers have been an issue for the Aztecs.

San Diego State will win if: The Aztecs' defense must be patient and stick to individual responsibilities to slow Navy's option. Aztecs defenders want to force Dobbs to give up the ball as quickly as possible because he's the Midshipmen's greatest threat. Once they have possession, the Aztecs must avoid turnovers and capitalize on the advantage they have with their receivers against Navy's secondary.

EXPERT PICKS

Olin Buchanan: San Diego State 38, Navy 34
Tom Dienhart: Navy 30, San Diego State 28
David Fox: San Diego State 21, Navy 17
Mike Huguenin: San Diego State 35, Navy 28
Steve Megargee: San Diego State 24, Navy 21

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.



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