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Navy hopes to make strong opening statement vs. Blue Hens

Armed ForcesDefenseFootballDelaware Fightin' Blue HensRicky Dobbs

Most of the current Navy starters were not on the field at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium the last time the Midshipmen played Delaware. That was in 2009, when the home team turned a three-point lead early in the fourth quarter into a deceptive 35-18 victory.

Nearly every Navy player was either in high school or attending the academy's prep school back in 2007, when a then-relatively unknown Joe Flacco led the Blue Hens to a wild 59-52 win by scoring at will in the second half.

In the case of this year's Navy team, ignorance might not exactly be bliss.

It might also explain Navy's nonchalance when it came to a recent practice. It agitated Ken Niumatalolo so much that the normally even-keeled fourth-year coach spent much of Wednesday afternoon at Rip Miller Field ripping into one player or another — or simpy the whole team — as the Midshipmen got ready for Saturday's 3:30 p.m. season opener against Delaware.

It didn't seem as if the Midshipmen realized, or cared, that Delaware was coming off a 12-3 season in which it reached the national championship game of what was once called Division I-AA. Or that the Blue Hens still had enough players returning to be ranked fifth in the country among Football Championship Subdivision teams.

"This group that we're getting ready to play is ready to hit us in the lips if we don't," Niumatalolo said.

Knowing the recent history between the schools, as well as what other FCS teams have done to Football Bowl Subdivision teams with far more talent than Navy, Niumatalolo has a right to be a little edgy. This isn't playing Towson, the team the Midshipmen throttled in Niumatalolo's debut as Navy's coach in 2008, before opening with Ohio State and Maryland the past two years.

"I don't look at them as a I-AA team. They're a good football team," a still-fuming Niumatalolo said after sending his team to the weight room for a post-practice workout and not allowing the players to speak to the media. "They've got transfers from different [FBS] schools.

"We've played them before. In that mindset, we don't even ask. We don't look at how many As after [Division] I. They're a good football team, and if we don't understand that, we're in trouble. And I don't know if we do. I'm doing a poor job as a coach getting that across."

Coming off a 9-4 season that ended with a disappointing 35-14 loss to San Diego State in the Poinsettia Bowl, Navy will start a new quarterback, senior Kriss Proctor, and have eight new starters on defense. The Blue Hens will also be replacing their quarterback, Pat Devlin, but Delaware coach K.C. Keeler has decliined to say whether sophomore Trevor Sasek or junior Tim Donnelly will start.

"We might have a competition of whoever gets out [to the huddle] there first, we'll name them the starter," Keeler joked.

Just as Navy expects to run more of a traditional triple option with Proctor than they did with Ricky Dobbs, Navy linebackers coach Steve Johns expects Delaware to come out running preseason Colonial Athletic Association player of the year Andrew Pierce behind a veteran offensive line to give either Sasek or Donnelly a chance to establish themselves.

"They're a very physical running team. … We're going to be physically challenged to stop the running game," Johns said.

Said Pierce, who rushed for 1,655 yards and 14 touchdowns as a freshman: "You can expect us to run a lot and pass a lot."

Keeler knows his team's rabid fan base will try to make it to Annapolis in hopes of seeing an upset.

"In their minds, it's a great game to go and watch," Keeler said. "I always try to explain to them, 'You don't come to watch us play, you come to watch us win.' At the end of the year, you have to have enough wins to get into the playoffs. The goal of our program is not to win a I-A game. The goal of our program is to win a national championship."

Said Pierce, "I think we go out with the mentality that we want to win every game. If we win this game, it will be a good boost for our season. Mentally and physically, if we go out and play as hard as we can, we can play with a lot of teams. In our conference, every game is a championship game and this will be a championship game."

don.markus@baltsun.com

DELAWARE (0-0) @ NAVY (0-0)

Time: 3:30 p.m.

TV: CBS Sports Network

Radio: WBAL (1090 AM) WNAV (1430 AM)

Series: Navy leads 8-7  

Last meeting: Navy won 35-18 on Nov. 14, 2009 in Annapolis  

Navy offense vs. Delaware defense: The Blue Hens have seven new starters on defense, including cornerback Travis Hawkins, a transfer from Maryland. This could be beneficial to the Midshipmen, who return three of four starters on the offensive line as well as veteran slotbacks Gee Gee Greene and Aaron Santiago. Senior quarterback Kriss Proctor was 2-1 as a starter playing behind Ricky Dobbs and is thought to be much more precise in the triple option than his predecessor.

Navy defense vs. Delaware offense: The Midshipmen are in nearly the same situation as the Blue Hens, with eight new starters. Inside linebacker Matt Warrick started the last two games of 2010 and recorded 18 tackles. Four-year starter Jabaree Tuani is hoping to take freshman Jamel Dobbs under his wing. Navy will have to stop Delaware tailback Andrew Pierce early to force either of the quarterbacks, Trevor Sasek or Tim Donnelly, to make plays. Sasek has experience and led the Blue Hens to a late victory over James Madison in 2010. — DON MARKUS

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