The 2003 season was a memorable one for Navy football. It's hard to describe just how improved this team was; the 2002 season feels like a long time ago. The 2001 0-10 debacle feels like a decade ago. What made this team so much better?
Clearly the offense is the identity of this team. When one mentions Navy football, the first image that comes to mind is a beautifully run triple option. The experience of Craig Candeto, the hard-nosed running of Kyle Eckel, and the big-play ability of Tony Lane and Eric Roberts made the offense something special this year. The most important improvement in the offense was the reduction of turnovers. Navy had more fumbles than any other team in 2002. Navy still coughed up a few too many fumbles this year (14), but it was a far cry from the 25 lost in 2002. Taking care of the ball a little better allowed the offense to finish drives. With Kyle Eckel piling up 1,200 yards and Craig Candeto being the first Navy QB since Chris McCoy to roll up 1,000 yards rushing & 1,000 yards passing in a season, Navy averaged a whopping 323 yards rushing per game. Navy led the nation in rushing for only the second time in its history (1999). The "Big Stick" offense chewed up yards and clock while achieving efficiency that at times was frightening, scoring on every possession of the second half of the Vanderbilt game and scoring a touchdown on every drive led by Candeto against Central Michigan. Coach Johnson's ability to adjust to defenses coupled with Candeto's decision-making made the 2003 Navy offense a juggernaut.
As a side note, no mention of the offense's success would be complete without mentioning the play of the offensive line. With the number of injuries that unit suffered, they could have easily imploded over the course of the season. They didn't though, and every player answered the call. Their performance was a great credit to coaches Ken Niumatololo and Todd Spencer, and the spirit and determination of the Mids.
But while the offense is the most celebrated part of Navy football, it was the defense that was the biggest difference in the team's success in 2003. Statistically, the differences between the 2002 and 2003 Navy defenses are breathtaking. Navy's pass defense finished 14th in the nation in 2003, a startling contrast from 62nd in 2002. Overall defense improved from 99th to 42nd. At the heart of the improvement was the change from a base 4-3 to a 3-4 alignment. Navy is small up front on defense... Always have been, and probably always will be. The 3-4 alignment is Navy's way of turning lemons into lemonade... If we're going to be small anyway, we might as well be small and fast. Replacing that fourth lineman with a linebacker added to overall team speed on defense and allowed for more creative ways to get to the quarterback. But this isn't the first time that Navy's gone to a 3-4. What was the difference this time? The answer: Buddy Green.
It's a testament to how well respected Paul Johnson is for a coach of Buddy Green's caliber to leave a successful program like North Carolina State and come to a rebuilding Navy team. But there has to be another reason for one of the most successful defensive coordinators in the ACC to take the same position at the Naval Academy. And there is; with Coach Johnson's focus on the offense, Coach Green can have a degree of autonomy with the defense. Given this responsibility, he has thrived. Along with a new alignment, the defense also had a new philosophy: patience. Keep everything in front of you. Prevent the big play. Force the other guy to have to take snap after snap & drive the length of the field. Tighten up in the red zone. The more snaps the other guy takes, the more likely he is to make a mistake. We've heard these things preached all season long, and we've seen the results. Linebacker Eddie Carthan didn't have a single interception in his previous three seasons; this year, he had 4. The defense as a whole created more turnovers, which is somewhat ironic - by not trying to force too much, they created more opportunities for themselves. The 2003 defense was a brilliant demonstration of a coach adjusting his philosophy to get the most from the players he had. As new talent emerges in Annapolis, so too will the defensive strategy. But until then, it's good to know that Buddy Green has a formula that works.
Aside from X's and O's, the other major factor in Navy's success was scheduling. A more "realistic" schedule was one of the items that both Johnson and AD Chet Gladchuk recognized as necessary to jumpstart the football program. When a team has gone 3-30 over the previous three seasons, it forgets how to win. That might sound like a cliché, but it's true. By replacing Washington and Boston College with more winnable games against VMI and Eastern Michigan, Navy had a chance to build momentum and gain confidence to start the season. And gain confidence they did, beating VMI and Eastern Michigan by a combined score of 76-27. But don't let the schedule fool you into thinking that the team wasn't really improved; the trophy residing in the Rotunda is a symbol of improvement over one part of the schedule that will never change. There's no way to schedule yourself into a Commander-in-Chief's Trophy. Not directly, anyway, although it's helpful for an up-and-coming team to gain a little confidence early in the year.
All in all, 2003 was a step in the right direction, and a much bigger step than most of us expected in only the second year under Paul Johnson. It's been a long time since we felt so much anticipation going into a new football season.