With a well-earned victory behind it, practice this week for the spirited and newly confident Navy football squad was practically enjoyable as they prepared for their home encounter tomorrow at 1:30 p.m. with the Commodores of Vanderbilt University.
Defeating this academically oriented institution for its second win will not be easy. Vanderbilt won again in its conference last week by beating Kentucky, 20-7.
In the three meetings between the schools, the first of which was in 1907 in Nashville, Navy has a win and two ties. Most notable of these three games was the last one played in Annapolis in 1967 that ended 35-35.
Featured for the Mids were the passing of John Cartwright, the rushing of Jeri Balsey and the receiving of Rob Taylor and Mike Clark. It was one of Navy's historic total offensive days, with 279 yards on the ground and 235 yards in the air for 514 yards.
After losing four of their last five games in 1991, including a 27-25 upset of Georgia, the Commodores' "best recruiting class in history" was greeted by second-year coach Gerry DiNardo last August along with 16 returning starters. Hopes were high in Nashville for a possible bowl season. An opening 25-8 loss to No. 2 Alabama dampened the spirits, but they bounced back to beat Duke and No. 25 Mississippi. Injuries to key personnel followed, as did close defeats to Wake Forest, Georgia and South Carolina before the big win at Kentucky.
The Commodores have run on 78.8 percent of their offensive plays, led by tight end Pat Akkos, a 6-foot-5, 252-pound junior whose punishing blocks are earning him All-Southeastern Conference honors. Vanderbilt ranks third in the SEC in rushing yards and 18th nationally.
Veteran quarterback Marcus Wilson leads the Commodores in scoring with six touchdowns and in total offense, not unlike Navy's Jason Van Matre, whose running and passing exploits have kept the Mids close in recent games.
Vanderbilt is not unfamiliar with the Navy program, as linebacker coach Carl Reese served under George Chaump in 1990 at Navy, and defensive line coach Jerome "Pappy" Oliver spent 1984 to 1986 with the Mids. Outside linebacker coach Bill Elias Jr., is the son of former Navy head coach Bill Elias Sr., who headed the Mids from 1965 to 1968.
As demonstrated in the Tulane game, Navy's defense continues to toughen and improve. Noteworthy is the progress of linebacker Javier Zuluaga, who was named Eastern College Athletic Conference I-A Defensive Player of the Week. Selected on the weekly honor roll was Van Matre, who rushed for 89 yards and completed seven of 13 pass attempts for 101 yards and two touchdowns.
Enough accolades can't be passed along to the defensive line, which includes Bob Goodson, Bob Kuberski, Ches Snider and Dave Shaw, backed up by Grover Favors. One of their biggest tests will be against the hard-charging Commodores.
On offense, Van Matre has been outstanding running the ball, and is particularly dangerous as he scampers away from broken plays. But as the offense becomes more adjusted to the new offensive attacks, Navy's good runners, such as Duke Ingraham, Billy James, Cleavon Smith and Jimmy Screen, behind improved blocking of Lionel Hines, could explode at any time.
Mids supporters are keeping an eye on Rice, which entertains Navy next week in Houston. It continues to upset the Southwest Conference week after week, last Saturday soundly whipping Texas Tech, 34-3. Their game tomorrow against visiting Baylor is being touted as an "Ole Texas Shootout."
By all means if possible, see the big Army-Navy Eastern Lightweight Conference Championship tonight on Turf Field at 7. The Mids are undefeated and in a tie with the Cadets for the title.