It's an occurrence that has become so unlikely, and so rare, that you almost have to repeat it again and again to believe it: Navy in a rout, Navy in a rout, Navy in a rout. . . .
As strange as that sounds, it is true. With fullback Brad Stramanak rushing for three touchdowns, Navy routed Eastern Illinois, 31-10, last night at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.
It was the largest margin of victory for Navy in a home game since 1988, when the Midshipmen beat Yale, 41-7, in the fourth game of the season. Since then, the Midshipmen were 5-17 at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium before last night, the five victories coming by an average of 4.8 points.
After sweating it out at times in the final minutes in the few Navy home wins over the past five years, the fans in Annapolis were overdue for a breather.
"It's great," said Navy tailback Jason Van Matre, who wasn't supposed to play because of a strained left knee, but who gained 49 yards on seven carries. "One of our main goals is to not lose a home game. Once you get the fans behind you and the brigade behind you, it just gets you that more intense."
Navy (1-1) reached the .500 mark for the first time since Nov. 17, 1990, when the Midshipmen defeated Delaware, 31-27, to get to 5-5 (that team finished 5-6).
Before Navy fans get carried away, however, they should remember that the victory was against Eastern Illinois, a Division I-AA team that was coming off a nine-turnover performance in a 49-7 loss to McNeese State.
But a win is a win -- particularly for a team that had lost the past three times it played a Division I-AA foe.
"It was a very important win for Navy," said Navy coach George Chaump. "We look like a Division I-A football team, finally. I liked the way they played the game in terms of their hustle."
And what about the hustle of Stramanak, who had a particularly good night in a game he was told he would start just moments before kickoff. While the Midshipmen were finishing 1-10 last season, he could only watch from the sidelines as he recovered from reconstructive knee surgery.
But last night he rushed for a career-high three touchdowns, including a 50-yard run in the third quarter right through the middle of the Eastern Illinois defense. That score gave Navy a 28-10 lead and put the game away.
"It's a good feeling," said Stramanak, who left the game in the fourth quarter after slightly injuring the knee. "The line just did the job."
Navy got off to an encouraging start when Billy James returned the opening kickoff 33 yards. Five plays later, Jim Kubiak hit Kevin Hickman on a 29-yard pass that gave Navy a first down on the Panthers' 15-yard line. But the Midshipmen failed to score, as Kubiak's pass was intercepted by linebacker Tim Carver.
Eastern Illinois converted that turnover into a 35-yard field goal by Steve Largent for a 3-0 lead with 9:09 left in the first quarter. But that would prove to be the only lead -- and the only highlight -- for the Panthers.
With Kubiak doing a nice job getting all of his receivers involved in the offense, Navy covered 81 yards in 10 plays on its next possession, which was capped by a 25-yard scoring pass to Hickman that gave Navy a 7-3 lead.
Navy failed to move the ball on its next two series, but the Midshipmen took a 14-3 lead on a 77-yard drive that ended with a 2-yard touchdown run by Stramanak with 9:04 left in the second quarter.
Stramanak found the end zone again on Navy's next drive -- this time from 1 yard out -- and the Midshipmen had a 21-3 lead that held until halftime. That drive covered 66 yards.
After rushing the ball just once last week against Virginia, Stramanak appeared to be in the form of two years ago, when his five touchdown runs led Navy. He finished with 96 yards on 16 carries.
For the half, Kubiak completed 14 of 25 passes for 217 yards, with Hickman catching four for 91 yards. Navy had 291 yards in total offense in the half.
Eastern Illinois was able to pull to 21-10 after senior quarterback Jeff Thorne hit split end Obadiah Cooper on a 20-yard touchdown pass with 6:23 left in the third quarter.
But any hopes of a Eastern Illinois comeback were --ed five plays later when Stramanak broke through the middle on his 50-yard scoring run to make it 28-10.
"They had a very odd defense in that they didn't have anybody in center field," Kubiak said of Eastern Illinois, which overloaded defensive players on the sides. "I couldn't believe he broke free with no one touching him."
Navy got a 27-yard field goal by Dave Gwinn in the fourth quarter to finish the scoring.