While the easy temptation is to say that these are two different seasons with two decidedly different quarterbacks--Aaron Polanco last year and Lamar Owens this time around--a closer look suggests that Navy just might be in a position to benefit from last year's bowl experience. It's not that there are similarities between this game and last year's bowl game; it's that the similarities exist in areas where Navy can profit from them.
If you remember the buildup to the Emerald Bowl last year, you might have recalled a few things about the matchup against "Los Lobos." First of all, New Mexico ended its season on November 20, while Navy--courtesy of the made-for-TV Army game--played its last game in early December. And while the Emerald Bowl was played just before New Year's--unlike this Poinsettia Bowl game, which will be played before Christmas Day--the fact still stood that Navy had a shorter gap between the end of its regular season and its bowl game. The fact that Navy looked much sharper than the Lobos in Pac Bell Park was partially a product of the shorter layoff the Midshipmen had going into the ballgame.
This year, Colorado State played its last game on November 19, two weeks earlier than Navy's season finale against Army. That similarity between this year and last year suggests that Navy will be sharper, less rusty, and endowed with a better competitive edge than the Rams. It leads an astute football observer to conclude that if Navy can be sharp out of the box, Colorado State will struggle to find its footing and could wind up in deep trouble. Navy needs to dominate the first half in order to have a good chance to win. If the Midshipmen miss opportunities to get on top of the Rams early, chances are the tide will turn after halftime, as a Ram team will shake off rust and, buoyed by the confidence that comes from knowing you‘ve dodged a major bullet, begin to use its physicality and size to its advantage. Last year, Navy was able to beat a bigger New Mexico team on the basis of ruthlessly effective execution, particularly but not exclusively in the first half. That similarity will certainly have to exist if Navy is to win its second straight bowl game.
Another similarity between this year's bowl and last year's bowl for Navy is that the Midshipmen will face a quarterback with noticeable weaknesses as a passer. Just as New Mexico quarterback Kole McKamey was limited in his ability to devastate an opposing defense with his passing game, so it also stands that this year's quarterback of a Navy bowl opponent, CSU signal-caller Justin Holland, has a big chink in his armor as well. Admittedly, McKamey and Holland are not the same kind of quarterback: McKamey was more of a runner, while Holland is more of a traditional dropback quarterback who throws a lot more vertical passes. But again, the similarities are the things that line up in Navy's favor. While Holland is dissimilar from McKamey in many ways, he's like McKamey in that he's mistake-prone. While Navy used two McKamey interceptions and three New Mexico turnovers to win a bowl game over a Mountain West opponent last year, it stands to reason that Navy's defense could coax a number of picks out of Holland and Colorado State this year. By disguising coverages and getting hands into passing lanes, Navy's defense can make the impact plays that will swing this game in the Midshipmen's direction.
So you see, not everything about this inaugural Poinsettia Bowl game is exactly like last year's Emerald Bowl in San Francisco. But the similarities that do exist are the kinds of similarities that, if repeated, will go a long way toward bringing about a Navy victory in a bowl on the California coast for the second straight season.
And oh, by the way: if Navy can pull off another 26-play, 96-yard, 14-minute, 26-second scoring drive--just as it did in the third and fourth quarters of the Emerald Bowl--this theme about "similarities and success" in bowl games will have even more validity for the Midshipmen. Reduplicating their advantages from the Emerald Bowl while exploiting the weaknesses of another Mountain West team will enable the Johnson Boys to come up roses in the first-ever Poinsettia Bowl.
Navy coach Paul Johnson, right, shakes hand with Poinsettia Bowl officals, left, as the team arrives at a hotel in San Diego on Sunday, Dec. 18, 2005. Navy will face Colorado State in Thursday's football game in San Diego. (AP Photo/Denis Poroy)