Prepared for an unprepared Rice, Navy pulls rank

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Three days prior to Ken Hatfield's bringing his Rice football team in to play Navy, the coach said, "I was fortunate enough to coach at one of the academies [Air Force]. I've seen the situation [of a disappointing season] Navy has before it and how it reacts to it. I've told our team and I think we'll play inspired."

As the camp warden in the movie "Cool Hand Luke" put it, "What we have here is a failure to communicate." Certainly a majority of the Owls obviously didn't heed the message, or perhaps were thinking about an upcoming calculus exam.

"They play their guts out on every play, and they're going to get you if you're not ready," noted Rice's injured quarterback, Josh LaRocca, of the suddenly balanced Middies.

With LaRocca playing all the way instead of just a couple of plays, it might have been a different story, but maybe not. Navy got something out of its running game, for a change. Jim Kubiak had a chance to spot receivers, for a change. And the defense comprised the people most inspired.

So ready were the Mids defenders before, during and after the 29-17 Navy victory, linebacker Shane Holloran said, "I feel sorry for Army now that we're 'up' on the wishbone. Rice did everything we expected. Thing I'd like to do is play Air Force again now that we know what we're doing against the 'bone."

Youthful exuberance and enthusiasm talking? No, Halloran was one of 22 seniors bidding farewell to Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium after four seasons of hard knocks. And any time you knock off a 16-point favorite and post a second straight victory after starting a season 0-5 and 1-7, well . . .

Kubiak, who has spent much of the season getting his shoulder pads turned around by the defensive rush, got fine protection throughout and responded with 19 completions for 242 yards and a touchdown, a miraculous grab by Matt Scornavacchi amid three defenders in the end zone.

Able to average just 1.7 yards per rushing attempt through nine games and 275 carries, the Mids doubled that and, with Omar Nelson turning in a half-dozen runs between 7 and 15 yards, did a decent job of controlling the clock and tempo.

"Our running wasn't great," said Kubiak, "but when it counted the most, we did it, particularly on that last touchdown drive. The offensive line did a great job. I wasn't picking myself up off the ground much, which is the important thing with a quarterback."

Chief among Kubiak's targets were Ross Scott, who nearly matched his season's output of seven receptions with six grabs, and Scornavacchi, who indicated just how good his quarterback's protection was: "I'm on the wide side of the field [flanker] and, usually, I'm his third or fourth choice on a lot of plays. If Jim's got time he'll come back to me and he had that today."

All other contributing factors to the upset can be laid at the feet of Rice. "Maybe we came in and looked at the record and thought we'll be able to handle Navy," said LaRocca who, with a bad shoulder injury, sat out until 10:40 remained and his team was down by 14 points, 24-10.

The Owls, it seemed, took the weakest aspects of the wishbone and went with them. The triple option? Forget it, Rice didn't run it. Able to get 115 yards out of its passing game with freshman quarterback Chad Nelson hitting six of eight tries in the first half, the losers got no yardage and no completions on just two tries over the last two periods.

Rice got 200 yards of total offense in the first half, then dipped to 137 in the second half, more than half of that on Nelson's 74-yard sprint to six points with six minutes remaining, all on the ground.

Hard to imagine that two weeks ago the Owls were talking about being the Southwest Conference winner and host in the Mobil Cotton Bowl. Last week the Owls still had a chance at the Sun Bowl and a winning season. Now it's all gone and Navy is to thank.

If the players were full of themselves, and rightly so, they were laid back next to George Chaump. The Navy coach said: "I believe we can now compete against anyone, and I wish our season was starting instead of ending."

Anyone? Beat Army Dec. 3, George. That will suffice.

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