Navy coach Paul Johnson figured he’d slide into October knowing quite a bit about his young team. But then Hurricane Rita came in and blew away that idea. With their game against Rice postponed by the hurricane right after a bye week, the Midshipmen ended September with an unusual 21-day layoff. With the long break so early in the season, not even Johnson knows what to expect when his team plays Air Force on Saturday at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium. Though Navy got its first victory of the year last Saturday, beating Duke 28-21, Johnson said it was almost like starting the season over again. “It was tough, I’ll tell you,” Johnson said. “I’ve never gone through anything like that. We probably didn’t play as well against Duke as we did maybe in the first game, but we had that long layoff and we also had exam week, so that’s tough too.” For Navy, breaking the continuity of its season was another setback for a team that was supposed to spend the first month finding itself. The group that beat Air Force 24-21 at Falcon Stadium last year was largely broken up because of graduation losses, leaving two offensive and three defensive starters. Navy also has six senior starters, among the fewest in Division I-A. “We have some kids that are fairly talented but very inexperienced and I think the jury’s still out,” Johnson said. “We’ve only played three games. I think we’ll get better as the year goes on.” Until beating Duke, the Midshipmen had the look of a team that couldn’t close the deal. In its opener, Navy had a 14-3 lead early against Maryland but lost 23-20 when Maryland converted a fourth-and-8 on its way to a touchdown with 1:01 remaining. The next week, Navy had a chance to come back from a 10-point deficit against Stanford but couldn’t put together a drive in the last 2 minutes and fell 41-38. Though Navy got 21 days of practice to work out the kinks, Johnson said the break didn’t benefit his team because it was already well into its preparations for Rice before the game got cancelled three days in advance. “We started working on Duke because that was our next game, so we got an extra two days on Duke,” Johnson said. “But we didn’t begin to think about Air Force.” Despite the Midshipmen’s strange schedule and the new personnel, Air Force is still wary of Navy’s potential. First-year starting quarterback Lamar Owens was affected by cramps in the first two games, but he’s averaging 5.6 yards per carry and has completed 21 of 38 passes for two touchdowns. Though fullback Kyle Eckel is gone after he sliced up Air Force’s defense the past two years, Falcon back John Taibi said Navy has more speed at halfback this year with sophomore Reggie Campbell (8.8 yards per carry) and senior Marco Nelson (6.2 yard per carry). But Taibi also knows stopping fullback Matt Hall will be the priority. “We have to stop the fullback game first and then it’ll be the perimeter game,” Taibi said. “Navy has a lot of talent on their team. Their running backs are really quick. Their fullback is a real good athlete. They have a little different personnel.” CONTACT THE WRITER: 636-0258 or firstname.lastname@example.org NEXT Air Force at Navy, 11:30 a.m. Saturday, College Sports Television, 740/560 AM
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