Anyone looking for signs that the Navy football program is headed in the right direction got a big one this week. The Mids, losers of 21 of their past 23 games, are three-point favorites against Northwestern on Saturday.
"Evidently, [whoever does the point spreads] didn't watch us play against N.C. State," Navy coach Paul Johnson said, referring to his team's 65-19 loss.
Still, Navy's game against the Wildcats will be a good indicator of how far the Mids have come, or of how far they have to go. A win over Northwestern would get Navy off to its best start since 1997 and would mark just the fifth time since 1990 that the Mids have started a season 2-1.
The Wildcats, however, need a win just as much as Navy. Northwestern lost, 52-3, to Air Force in its season opener and lost, 48-24, to Texas Christian. The Wildcats defeated Duke, 26-21, last week, but, like Navy, there are serious questions on offense and defense.
"Northwestern has a good football team," Johnson said. "They have a young team, but they're getting better every week. Looking at what's happened here, I don't think anybody would be too scared of us running wild on them, would they?"
Air Force, which runs the option similarly to Navy, did run wild on Northwestern. The Wildcats have promising players, but nearly all are underclassmen; they start six sophomores and three freshmen on defense alone.
Freshman quarterback Brett Basanez leads the offense, coming off a game in which he threw for 245 yards and ran for two scores against Duke. Sophomore middle linebacker John Pickens is the hard-hitting leader of Northwestern's defense. He had 19 tackles against the Blue Devils.
One thing is certain: After a week off to think about its big loss to N.C. State, Navy just wants to get on the field again.
"I think everybody wants to get back out there and play again and see if we can't play any better," Johnson said. "It doesn't have anything to do with getting at Northwestern. We would be excited to play no matter who we were playing."
Tryouts at kicker
Johnson took an unusual approach to working on the team's kicking woes, holding open tryouts Tuesday for place-kicker. The competition included Bobby Cherneski and Joe Hembree, seniors on Navy's varsity soccer team.
"We had some guys in the Brigade who wanted to give it a try after watching us play and I salute them for that," Johnson said. "I think that's great that they care enough to do that, so we wanted to give them a try."
Johnson said he was impressed by both players' leg strength, but he said the Mids don't have time to mold either into an everyday kicker.
"It's one thing for guys to have strong legs, but they have to go to soccer practice and they have to play soccer," Johnson said. "If they were going to be able to do it, they probably would have just been able to come to games. ... If we could give it time I think they could be pretty good, but we just don't have the time."
Junior Eric Rolfs will continue to handle field goals and kickoffs. He's 1-for-2 on field goals this season.
It's no secret that Navy wants to run the ball, no matter who the opponent is. The Mids rank seventh in the country in rushing at 268 yards a game, led by quarterback Craig Candeto, who has averaged 105.5 yards in two games. But Navy spent time during its off week trying to sharpen its passing attack.
Candeto had a couple of opportunities against N.C. State to complete long throws, but he failed to connect with open receivers. On one play, receiver Amir Jenkins beat his man on a post pattern in the end zone, but Candeto underthrew the ball and it was knocked away.
"A lot of people see us as just a running team," Candeto said. "But we know we need to have that ability to hit it downfield, even if it's just to balance things out. We're not going to throw it 30 times a game, but when a guy gets open, we need to hit those passes."
Junior middle linebacker Andy Sinitiere is expected to play this week despite a fractured bone in his foot. ... Junior defensive tackle Kevin Schwind is out with an injured left leg. ... Northwestern is the first team from the Big Ten that Navy has played since 1986, when the Mids lost to Indiana, 52-29. Navy hasn't played host to a Big Ten team since 1950, when Northwestern and Navy played at Memorial Stadium in Baltimore.
Next for Navy
Site:Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium
Radio:WNAV (1430 AM)
Line:Navy by 3