NCAA Football Preview - Navy Midshipmen
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From The Sports Network By John Agovino, College Football Staff Writer 2003 SEASON IN REVIEW: The Midshipmen were one of the biggest surprises in football last season as they finished the year 8-4, their first winning season since 1997 when the squad finished the year 7-4. The Middies started the season just 2-2, with losses coming against TCU (17-3) and Rutgers (48-27), but they pulled off a shocking 28-25 win over 25th-ranked Air Force, which snapped a streak of 35 straight losses to ranked teams. The squad ripped off two more wins coming at Vanderbilt (37-27) and at Rice (38-6) before being stunned 21-17 by Delaware. After beating Tulane 35-17, the Middies lost a heartbreaker to Notre Dame 27-24, but finished the year strong with romps over Central Michigan (63-34) and Army (34-6). The strong season earned the Middies a date in the Houston Bowl against Texas Tech. However, Navy did not stand much of a chance as the squad fell to Texas Tech 38-14. Despite the loss in the Houston Bowl, Navy became only the sixth team in NCAA history to go from zero victories to a bowl game in two seasons. 2004 ANALYSIS: OFFENSE: Coach Paul Johnson and the Middies use a spread offense which is based around the ground attack. With such a strong emphasis on the running game it should be no surprise that Navy led the nation last season with 323 yards per game on the ground. The Middies' ground game should continue its dominance this season especially with star fullback Kyle Eckel back for his final year. Eckel, who last season racked up 1,249 yards and 10 scores, will be rejoined by slot back Eric Roberts who averaged 9.1 yards per carry in 2003. The Middies do lose quarterback Craig Candeto, who only threw for 1,140 yards, but did rushed for 1,112 yards and 16 touchdowns. Junior QB Aaron Polanco will have a large void to fill when he takes over as the new signal caller for Navy. Receivers Amir Jenkins and Lionel Wesley, who combined for 27 receptions last season, will play the receiver spots, but they will take a back seat to Roberts who led the team with 493 receiving yards and five scores. The loss of three starters from the offensive line should be concerning for the Middies, considering this season's front weighs an average of just over 252 pounds. DEFENSE: After playing two seasons in a 4-3 formation, the Middies changed into a 3-4 formation and allowed just 173 yards on the ground per game; their best mark since holding opponents to 152 yards per contest back in 1999. The entire defensive front from a year ago is back, including DE Jeff Vanak, who recorded 40 tackles and six TFLs. Despite the loss of their best defensive player in LB Eddie Carthan, the linebacking corps should still be very productive this year. Look for LB Lane Jackson, who finished last year with 95 tackles, to step up as the leader of this group. Josh Smith will hold down the free safety position in 2004 after recording a team-high 108 stops and four interceptions at the position a year ago. The Middies should improve in their second season with the 3-4 formation. SPECIAL TEAMS: The special team unit for Navy has struggled mightily over the past few seasons, especially in the return game. The last punt return for a TD by Navy was eight years ago, while the last kick return was seven years prior to this season. Jason Tomlinson does show promise as the punt returner despite his 7.7 yards per return a year ago. Geoff Blumenfeld will take over the kicking duties for the Middies. Blumenfeld hit 3-of-6 in 2003 before a hip injury sidelined him. OUTLOOK: The Midshipmen are poised for another successful season and that is very possible with 14 starters returning from a year ago, including their star player in Eckel. The Middies are also beneficiaries of a light schedule that consists of just three road games and eight home games. Two of the three teams Navy plays away from Navy-Marine Corps Memorial are teams the squad defeated last year (Air Force and Tulane). Every team on the schedule is beatable for Navy, even the Fighting Irish, who escaped the clutches of the Midshipmen by a combined six points over the last two seasons. With a strong offense and a light schedule, the Middies are primed for another winning season and possible bowl bid.