2006 Look Ahead: Navy

Stanford's infamous opening opponent of 2005 will be the home opener for the Cardinal in '06. Navy has become synonymous with the September 16 unveiling of the new Stanford Stadium, but what kind of opponent will the Mids provide? A dangerous one with much talent and returning numbers on offense, as well as the front seven of their defense. They key question for Navy is their secondary.

Navy Midshipmen

First Down: Quick Hitters

Navy @ Stanford – September 16

Last Meeting: Stanford 41, Navy 38 ('05)

Side-by-Side Stats: (Navy/Stanford)
Returning Offensive Starters: 7/10
2005 Yards Per Point: 12.8/12.9
2005 Rushing Yards Per Game: 319/92
2005 Yards Per Carry: 5.7/2.6
2005 Passing Yards Per Game: 117/224
2005 Pass Completion Rate: 46.9/61.4
Returning Defensive Starters: 9/6
2005 Yards Per Point Allowed: 14.5/14.4
2005 Rushing Yards Per Game Allowed: 155/156
2005 Yards Per Carry Allowed: 3.8/4.0
2005 Passing Yards Per Game Allowed: 223/286
2005 Pass Completion Percentage Allowed: 63.0/60.8
2005 Record: 8-4/5-6

Second Down: Offense

Seven starters return on a unit that should continue to put up outstanding numbers regardless of opponent.

Navy's option attack is unlike any other modern-day passing-based offense, and while the Midshipmen's secondary suffers the consequences of not practicing against a passing offense (more on that later), opposing defenses simply cannot stop the option attack with just one week of preparation.  At Navy last year, Stanford yielded their hosts 210 rushing yards, 3.9 yards per carry and 38 points.  And believe it or not, Stanford did as well against the option as any of Navy's opponents – the 3.9 yards per carry the Cardinal yielded were the fewest of any 2005 Navy opponent, and the 210 rushing yards were the second lowest.

So this offense will score its points, and opposing defenses need to focus less on stopping it and more upon slowing it.  But with the most experienced offensive line and running back cadre in Paul Johnson's five-year tenure in Annapolis at his disposal, slowing or stopping the unit may prove tough.

2005 quarterback Lamar Owens, who made national headlines after a woman filed rape accusations, makes way for senior Brian Hampton, just 5'11" and 203 pounds.  Maybe I could have played Division I ball after all.  Owens ran (880 yards on 213 carries) as much as he threw (1299 yards on 122 attempts) last year, and Hampton too will serve as a glorified tailback in the option offense.

Similarly, receiver Jason Tomlinson is one of the best in Navy history – but his greatest value to the team may be in delivering seal blocks, not running stop routes.  When he is called upon to keep defenses honest, Tomlinson should match his 445 yards and impressive 18 yard per catch average from last year, with sophomore Tyree Barnes the other starting wideout.

Four starters return to the line, and the fifth – senior right tackle Joe Person, who notched 427 plays last season – practically was a 2005 starter.  Junior right guard Antron Harper is not only the smallest starting offensive lineman in the NCAA at a listed 5'11" 250, but is also the only non-senior on the line.  Stanford will have the size and strength edge, but Navy will have great familiarity with its blocking schemes and will try to use its experience to negate Stanford's (and its other opponents') strength advantage.

The strength of the offense is at the fullback at two slotback positions, where, respectively, junior Adam Ballard, sophomore Karlos Whittaker and junior Reggie Campbell bring genuine Division I-A athleticism to a school not used to that speed.  Ballard runs a 10.8 100 at 6'1" 240 and averaged an exceptional 6.1 yards per carry last season as the team's leading rusher behind Owens.  Whittaker averaged 7.8 yards per carry before an ACL tear cut his freshman season short, but perhaps Campbell is the most exciting of the bunch.  He scored a NCAA bowl record five touchdowns in the 51-30 romp in last year's Poinsettia Bowl (where Navy figures to earn an invite as long as it strings together winning seasons).  On 57 touches last year, Campbell averaged nine yards per carry, 0.3 more than Reggie Bush.

Whether the superb numbers stem from great talent, scheme, discipline or all the above is almost irrelevant.  What matters most is that Navy has averaged 30.5, 27.8 and 34.2 points per game the last three seasons and this year should see them top all those marks.

Third Down: Defense

Here is the flipside of running an unconventional offense.  Good luck defending the pass when you never see it in practice.

The Midshipmen have allowed over a 61% completion rate each of the last six seasons.  Last year, Stanford exploited Navy's backfield for 21-of-33 passing for 235 yards.  This year, Navy does return nine defensive starters, an incredibly high amount for a school that almost never plays underclassmen, so while the unit should be improved, it will still be one of the weakest defenses the Cardinal face this season.

End Jeremy Chase, a rare four-year starter, is the only loss up front for Navy, who will start four seniors on its '06 line.  The 3.8 yards allowed per carry was the best mark under Johnson's reign, and the Midshipmen should improve upon that and its 31 sacks last season, as five of its top six linemen return.

At linebacker, Jacob Biles, the team's second-leading tackler (109) departs, but here too depth returns in droves, as six of the top eight return.  The likely starters are a junior and two seniors, one of whom, inside linebacker Irvin Spencer, placed 10th in the NCAA with 140 tackles last season.  He also squats 560, but teams cannot cheat on him as outside linebacker Tyler Tidwell posted 10 sacks last season.  These linebackers need to continue to plug rushing lanes and, above all, get into the backfield quickly because opponents will light up the secondary behind it.

I suppose that the entire secondary returns is both good news and bad news.  Perhaps I am being too harsh: with the weakest unit on the team returning all its starters, Navy can only grow stronger, and if the secondary were to become even average by BCS standards, the Midshipmen could be looking at a very special year given their offense and their schedule.  Still, the combination of lightly recruited, relatively slow, undersized players (none of the likely starters top six feet) with little opportunity to improve, practicing against a rushing attack ever day, leaves me questioning.  I think Navy's secondary will hold the team back, but if the unit puts it together, Stanford and Notre Dame will be all that separates Navy from an undefeated season.

Fourth Down: Extra Points

- Navy has lost to Notre Dame 42 times in a row, the longest streak in the nation.  But, Navy has beaten the spread 12 of the last 16, enjoys a bye before the Irish and plays this year's tilt in Baltimore.  Think the Midshipmen will be fired up?

- With East Carolina and Massachusetts the opponents in the weeks preceding and Tulsa the week after, Navy can spend much of September focusing on its toughest early-season test: Stanford.  With Oregon the Cardinal's season opener and Pac-10 play kicking off the week after Navy visits, Stanford does not enjoy the same luxury.

- Taking that train of thought one step further, Navy has racked up a 24-10 record the last three years, with Duke and Vanderbilt the only BCS teams they have defeated.

- The Midshipmen may well add Stanford to that list of smarty-pants BCS schools it has defeated, but that does not change what weak scheduling Navy has enjoyed these past few seasons.  I predict Navy at 8-4; Stanford would likely go 11-1 (with the loss to Notre Dame) against the same slate.  Cardinal fans will have a right to complain if a win against Navy pushed Stanford to 6-6, yet Navy gets a bowl invite because of its national fan base while Stanford gets shut out.  Stranger things have happened.

2006 Regular Season Prediction:  8-4

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