Navy Football 2003: "Back At 'Em!"

Paul Johnson reminded everyone in the United States last season with Georgia Tech that he hadn't lost the mustard on his coaching fastball. Johnson had already established himself as a head coach at Georgia Southern, but it wasn't until he came to Annapolis that he proved he could succeed at the FBS level. The 2003 season marked his emergence in Division I college football.


If you were in Annapolis during the Paul Johnson years, or if you've lived in Atlanta the past several years, or if you've done any studying at all of the college football coaching landscape in the 21st century, you're aware of who Johnson is and what he has meant to numerous football programs.

Georgia Southern wasn't an FBS program back in 2001, Johnson's final season with the Eagles, but GSU is now a member of college football's highest classification -- and the outright Sun Belt Conference champion -- because of the seeds Johnson planted 14 years ago. Johnson's success put his name on Navy's radar, and when the Midshipmen brought him aboard for the 2002 season, this golden period in the history of Annapolis football was launched.

Johnson teaches football with more precision and urgency than many of his counterparts. Sure, if he struggles to find the right quarterback at the ACC (power-conference) level, his triple-option offense can struggle, but as both Navy and Georgia Tech fans have seen over the years, when he gets the right guys under center, his teams flourish. At Navy, Johnson continued to bring in signal callers who were more than capable of running his offense. Navy was no slouch on defense, either, but the ability to produce on offense in moments of need is what gave the Midshipmen the long-sought boost they needed.

This pattern of progress and prosperity took root with the blowout of Army at the end of the 2002 season, the moment when Navy began to cultivate a different sense of self as a football entity. However, that 2002 finale had to lead to a full season of good work the next autumn; only then could Navy say it was truly on its way.

The 2003 team delivered the goods, and the moment this team proved itself -- to the coaches and fans, and also to the nation -- came against Air Force on October 4, 2003, at FedEx Field in Landover, Maryland.

The Commander-in-Chief's Trophy was the almost-exclusive property of the Air Force Falcons at the time. The boys from Colorado Springs had won 13 of the previous 14 CIC trophies from 1989 through 2002, losing their grip on the trophy only once, in 1996, to Army. The 1990s are remembered -- or more precisely, best left forgotten -- as a time in Annapolis when on-field defeats were followed by haunting off-field tragedies. Darkness wasn't just a casual reference to scoreboard failures, but to a number of lives that were marked by sadness, uncertainty, and wrenchingly devastating deaths. (This is, of course, the Alton Grizzard story and the other lives that were enmeshed in it.)

Navy needed to feel good about itself again not just for the sake of winning itself, but to move past a decade that, save for 1996's bowl season, was hard to stomach. Enter the 2003 game against Air Force, the academy team that could not do anything wrong at the time... at least in CIC competition.

It was fitting that on this day -- a day when Navy had to prove its football manhood to a team that had owned the Midshipmen for years -- Paul Johnson's first bowl team in Annapolis shoved the ball right now Air Force's throat. This was not a day for the finesse dimensions of the triple option. This was a day for gut instincts, or rather, UP-THE-GUT instincts.

Navy fullback Kyle Eckel was the star of this game. It's impressive enough that he ran for 176 yards against the Falcons, but what mattered so much more within the context of this game -- and, by extension, Navy's first Commander-in-Chief's Trophy season since 1981 -- is that Eckel ran well precisely when his team needed him to.

In a game that saw Navy build 11-point leads on two occasions, only for Air Force to pull within one possession both times, the Falcons made their second push early in the fourth quarter, shaving a 21-10 deficit to 21-18 with just a minute gone in the final stanza. Navy encountered one of those fork-in-the-road moments when a game hung in the balance.

As we would see so many times during the Johnson era, and then into Ken Niumatalolo's tenure as Navy coach, the Midshipmen were pure gold at crunch time. However, on the afternoon of October 4, this identity had not been established yet. Navy, just one month into this pivotal season, had to show it could make something of itself under a coach who thought he had the stuff of a winner... but needed to see his players get the job done when it counted.

Enter Eckel.

The fullback ran for 55 yards on 8 carries on that drive, powering Navy to a touchdown and a two-score lead (28-18) with under eight minutes left. Air Force actually threw the ball well last year, in 2014, but the 2003 Falcons were not as proficient in the passing game. Navy held Air Force scoreless for the next seven minutes, allowing a touchdown only when the game was essentially out of reach in the final half minute of regulation. The Midshipmen scored a 28-25 win, and while there was a hiccup or two in that 2003 season (hello, Delaware), the program was on its way -- to a winning season, to a CIC Trophy, and to a bowl game.

The Midshipmen haven't looked back ever since. It all started on October 4, 2003, against the Air Force Academy.

Paul Johnson is famous and -- moreover -- beloved for his swagger. After the win, he unfurled this gem: "After last year's game, they said they wanted to send us a message: Got it. Back at 'em."

Back at 'em, indeed, Coach.

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