It's All About Paul

With 11:49 left in the fourth quarter of the inaugural Poinsettia Bowl, Navy registered its 48th point of the night against a hapless, overmatched, and evidently slow Colorado State defense. It wasn't a fluke. It wasn't something you could chalk up to injuries, lucky calls, or timely bounces of the ball. The truth was plain and overpowering: the Midshipmen had scored 48 points in 48 minutes and 11 seconds..

Navy truly possessed a point-a-minute offense, a juggernaut that flatly destroyed the Rams in a game that stopped being competitive late in the second quarterIn a contest that Vegas oddsmakers and most other football experts saw as an even matchup, Navy proved to be vastly superior in what amounted to the best bowl performance of the Paul Johnson era.

So without further ado, let's give it up to Navy's head coach.

Paul Johnson, basking in the glow of a second straight bowl win despite the loss of considerable talent and experience from last year's ten-win club, is the man of the hour in Annapolis. True, Reggie Campbell had more touchdowns in the Poinsettia Bowl runaway than the Chicago Bears have scored all season. Yes, Lamar Owens had his best passing night of 2005 against the Rams. Sure, Marco Nelson and Adam Ballard had several shining moments as well against Colorado State. But the real story in this latest Navy bowl win has to be the man whose vision and creativity enabled his offense to enjoy such a stellar outing against a coach--Sonny Lubick--who used to coach and coordinate the great Miami defenses of the late 1980s and early 90s under Dennis Erickson. In a matchup between an offensive guru and a defensive wizard, Johnson scored a TKO over Lubick.

Owens was his typically confident playmaking self, picking up where he left off after the Army game. Everyone on Navy's offense maxed out, and the passing game complemented the running game in the most balanced display ever seen from the Midshipmen in this roaringly successful season, now made complete with a bowl victory. But all these things fell into place because of the blackboard virtuosity of Johnson, whose genius is sometimes hard to fully explain.

Why was this a coaching win more than other games? Because Navy didn't always run the triple option against Colorado State. The Midshipmen's best plays were either pass plays or, even more so, quick tosses to setbacks. This wasn't about Owens merely making a read and executing--at least not to the extent Navy fans have become used to this season. No, on this glorious night in San Diego, it was Johnson's called plays that so thoroughly flummoxed a CSU defense that seemed confused from the opening snap.

If there's a way to explain Johnson's brilliance as a play caller and strategist, the term "pressure point" needs to figure into the discussion. Johnson has that hard-to-pin-down knack for sensing the pressure point of a defense on every series of downs. A first- or second-down play might probe or search out a defense for tendencies, but before a series of downs is over--sometimes on fourth down if not on third down--Johnson finds the kind of play that exposes the area of a defense that feels the most pressure. Navy's head coach is the Sherlock Holmes of college football: he always cracks the case with a studied and observant mind.

In the Poinsettia Bowl, Johnson made two fundamental moves--one in the first quarter, another throughout the final three quarters--that paralyzed Colorado State's defense and enabled the Midshipmen to cruise to victory.

First of all, Johnson used the pass early on to soften up Colorado State's defense later in the game. At the start of the Poinsettia Bowl, Johnson wisely deduced that the Rams would be all over the triple option. Sure enough, a dropback pass from Lamar Owens on the Navy offense's first play from scrimmage resulted in an easy touchdown. As the first half continued, Navy had still more success with downfield throws, until the Rams finally began to catch on late in the second quarter. But by that time, CSU's preoccupation with the threat of a legitimately potent passing attack rendered Lubick's defense susceptible to the ground game. This is when Johnson's other great tactical move entered the picture.

The noticeably different element of Navy's ground game was the fact that the triple option was used a little more sparingly than in the past. On this night, Johnson--knowing that a lack of speed was a huge issue for CSU's team defense--decided in some instances to ditch the triple option, which, with its ball fakes and its vulnerability to penetration from the defensive front, can get bottled up before it even has a chance to start. (Sure enough, this scenario--in which a triple option play gets blown up in the backfield--occurred on a number of occasions, including a few fourth downs.) Johnson accurately identified the single biggest pressure point of the Rams' defense: the perimeter. A quick-toss play--not the staple play of the triple option, and not a play in which Owens holds onto the ball until the last possible second--enabled a Navy back, usually Reggie Campbell, to get a running start toward the edges. The simple genius of the play was that it enabled Navy to use its speed in isolated areas of the field. With 22 players on the gridiron, Navy's quick toss play took CSU's physical size and heft out of the equation, reducing this contest to individual battles pitting Navy's speed against CSU's reaction time. Naturally, Navy's speed won out because the Midshipmen's backs and receivers always had the forward momentum and the angles needed to get to (or turn) the corner. That quick-toss run play used with such frequency almost always managed to convert a third and short, and it accounted for a number of Navy's game-breaking plays and touchdowns. Every single member of the offensive unit executed superbly, but it was Johnson's chalkboard chess-playing and his understanding of football's geometry and angles that truly enabled Navy to flourish so fully against its opponent from the Mountain West Conference.

But one more snapshot from Johnson, while we're still at it: after the poor decision to go for it on 4th and 2, which enabled CSU to score a quick touchdown and trim a 34-10 lead to 34-24 late in the third quarter, Johnson and the Navy offense faced the defining moment of the ballgame. If the momentum was going to be reversed, if order was going to be restored, and a bowl championship was to reside in Annapolis for a second straight year, Navy needed to push the lead back to 17 with an immediate touchdown drive. Another three-and-out, and CSU stood an excellent chance to develop freight-train-level confidence that could have steamrolled the Midshipmen come the fourth quarter. It was put-up-or-shut-up time for Johnson and his offense.

So what did Navy's resident genius decide to do? He went with a reverse on the first play, which got an easy 23 yards from Jason Tomlinson. Then, after continuing to establish the run, Johnson--with Navy's passing game stalling--decided to go back to the air precisely when Colorado State and Lubick had to think that Navy had abandoned the forward pass. Sure enough, Owens and Campbell hooked up for yet another touchdown on a 34-yard play. Thanks to a coach who knew the pressure points of the opposing team's defense, Navy led 41-24, never to be remotely threatened again. From beginning to end, with the pass and the run, with classic triple-option runs but also some change-of-pace runs, Paul Johnson (even more than Lamar Owens or Reggie Campbell) demolished Colorado State and the defensive mastermind who stood on the opposing sideline.

All the Navy fans who provided such a big turnout in San Diego had to be deliriously happy at what they saw: not just the brilliance of Paul Johnson in one game, but the brilliance of a man who, with yet another big accomplishment, continues to raise the bar for Annapolis Football while only increasing excitement in and around the program. Lamar Owens ends 2005 as a player who has managed to fill the very large shoes of Aaron Polanco, and to a man, the whole Navy team responded marvelously in rebounding from an 0-2 start to compile a season worthy of a consistently good program. The unbelievable 2004 season has been followed up by a wildly successful campaign in '05. Those are all tremendously positive realities no one could have taken for granted before this particular season started. Navy is currently one of those few rare programs in big-time college football that manages to consistently exceed expectations

But while this bunch of Midshipmen customarily raised its level of play against Army and in a bowl game, the larger accolades need to flow to the top, because it's at the top that the true and total transformation of Navy football has occurred. Against Colorado State in the first-ever Poinsettia Bowl, Paul Johnson showed Navy men and women everywhere why he's one of the finest gameday tacticians around. With his ability to get the most from his players, Paul Johnson only figures to do more of the same in 2006, which means nothing but more good times for the service academy whose football program is undeniably flourishing. Thanks to Paul Johnson, Christmases are now times to celebrate bowl victories and successful seasons--that's the best present a Navy football fan could have hoped for when a special coach was hired four not-so-long years ago.

Give it up to Paul Johnson. After a masterpiece in the Poinsettia Bowl, his program continues to be pointed in exactly the right direction. What he did in one game against Colorado State should only remind folks of how brilliant these past three seasons of Navy football have actually been. Let the holiday cheer--and the warm recollections of this awesome 21-point victory over Colorado State--linger well into a joyful offseason in Annapolis.


Navy's Jeremy Chase, left, Marshall Green, center, and Lamar Owens hoists the Poinsettia Bowl trophy after Navy's 51-30 victory over Colorado State in the college football game Thursday, Dec. 22, 2005, in San Diego. (AP Photo/Chris Park)

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