Don't look now, but these Midshipmen can play

With the brutal Southeastern Conference schedule Vanderbilt faces year-in and year-out, normally a non-conference date with a service academy team like Navy would be viewed as a bit of a breather. Instead, in Coach Paul Johnson's Midshipmen (3-2), the Commodores (1-5) will catch a team that's currently leading the nation in rushing... and a team fresh off its first victory over a ranked team in 18 years.

With the brutal Southeastern Conference schedule Vanderbilt faces year-in and year-out, normally a non-conference date with a service academy team like Navy would be viewed as a bit of a breather.

Not this time around, however.

Instead, in Coach Paul Johnson's Midshipmen (3-2), the Commodores (1-5) will catch a team that's currently leading the nation in rushing... and a team fresh off its first victory over a ranked team in 18 years.

Ruh-roh.

When Navy upset No. 25 Air Force last Saturday, the long-downtrodden Mid program took a giant step back toward respectability. Yes, this Navy team still runs an option-based offense. But under second-year coach Paul Johnson, the Mids are a far cry from the lowly Navy team Vandy fans are used to watching lose big to Notre Dame every year.

"[Navy is] greatly improved from last year," Vanderbilt Head Coach Bobby Johnson said Monday. "They've had some big wins.

"Air Force is used to winning. They expect to win. Navy going and winning that game was a great achievement."

Paul Johnson, one of the most knowledgeable proponents of the option offense in all of football, has the Midshipmen picking up a Division I-A-leading 308.2 yards per game on the ground. Navy picked up 373 yards rushing vs. Rutgers, 372 vs. Eastern Michigan, and 370 vs. VMI.

"They've done a great job of seeing what the other teams do, what they're trying to do to defend against that system, and they take advantage of it," Bobby Johnson said. "I guarantee that Paul Johnson has seen every defense imaginable against that offense, so there's nothing magical that we can do."

Navy's offense is a disciplined brand of assignment football, the grid equivalent of the Princeton offense in basketball. Fortunately, in Bobby Johnson, the Commodores have a head coach well-versed in defending it-- up until two years ago, the two coaches were perennial nemeses up when they guided two of the Southern Conference's top programs in Georgia Southern (Paul) and Furman (Bobby).

Saturday's game will be like a family reunion (though the two Johnsons are not related).

"We go back a long, long time," Johnson said. "Paul is a great coach and does a great job with his system. I don't think anybody knows it any better than Paul Johnson. He runs that offense about as good as you can run it."

Last Saturday, in a battle of option-based offenses, Navy junior fullback Kyle Eckel of Havertown, Pa. (right) ran like a locomotive against Air Force and picked up 176 yards on the ground. Meanwhile the Navy defense, typically the team's weakness, held up against a late assault by the Air Force and preserved a 28-25 victory.

"We have to go out, beat blocks and make tackles," Vandy's Johnson said. "There are going to be a lot of one-on-one situations where we are going to have to make tackles out there by ourselves. We're going to have to beat a block and then make a tackle. So, it's going to be a tough game for us."

Navy's Johnson held a 4-2 edge over Vandy's Johnson in head-to-head Southern Conference matchups between 1997 and 2001; but Bobby did defeat Paul 24-17 in the last meeting, in the I-AA playoffs in 2001. Both coaches left shortly after that game in order to pursue new jobs at Navy and Vanderbilt.

Bobby Johnson hopes his familiarity with Paul Johnson's system will be useful as the Commodores prepare for the formidable Navy attack.

"It's going to be an advantage, I think, that we've faced it before. If I had not seen this offense before, I think we'd have been in really big trouble."

No TV cameras will be present Saturday for Vandy's Homecoming game (1:00 p.m. CT). But for fans who love the pure, unadulterated game of college football, and who appreciate the intricacies of the option and the chess match between the two Johnsons-- Vanderbilt-Navy should be a delight.

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Vanderbilt has designated Saturday as "Military Appreciation Day." The ticket office announced Monday a ticket promotion whereby current and retired employees of the United States armed services can purchase up to four tickets to the Navy game for $5.00 each. A military I.D. or uniform attire is required for the discount.

Numerous activities honoring the military are also planned Saturday. Several military vehicles will be displayed in front of Vanderbilt Stadium before the game. Minutes prior to kickoff, four Navy F-18 jets from Norfolk, Va. will perform a flyover of the stadium.

Tickets are available throughout the week at the McGugin Center ticket office, or via the Internet at www.commodoregameday.com. For more information, contact 322-GOLD or 1-877-44-VANDY.

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Navy sophomore guard Brett Nungesser of San Marino, Calif., is the younger brother of former Vanderbilt defensive lineman Ryan Nungesser. The younger Nungesser is injured, however, and not expected to play.


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