Mids hope today will mark start of winning habit

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Navy right tackle Josh Goodin knows all about losing and understands as much as any other senior that the Midshipmen need to win now, starting today.

For veterans such as Goodin, who has suffered through 30 defeats and has savored only three victories over the previous three seasons, a return to respectability must begin in the season opener against visiting Virginia Military Institute.

"When you win three games in three years, whether you want it to or not, [losing] is going to start being a habit. It's easy to fall into that mode," Goodin said.

"Good players will pull out of it and pull the rest of their teammates out of that slump and kick that habit. I think we've gotten a lot of bad blood out of our systems. It seems like all of the roads are merging together. I haven't been this excited about football in a long time."

The Midshipmen have not enjoyed a winning season since 1997, have posted only two winning years since 1982, and have lost 14 consecutive home games since the start of the 2000 season. Last year, they followed a season-opening victory over Southern Methodist with 10 straight defeats and staggered home with one of the nation's more porous defenses, a ragged special teams unit and a 2-10 record.

If things are going to be different this time, Navy had better start by dispatching the Keydets, new members of the Big South Conference who are taking a stab at a Division I-A program for the first time since the Midshipmen whipped them by five touchdowns in Annapolis six years ago.

Navy likes its chances to win early and rebuild its football image. The Midshipmen are opening in partially renovated Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, are playing a scaled-down schedule that should give them a better chance to be competitive, have an infusion of promising plebe talent and are going into their second season under coach Paul Johnson.

Johnson, who orchestrated tremendous success at Division I-AA Georgia Southern over five years before coming to Navy -- where he was an assistant during the brief glory years of the mid-1990s -- has much fixing to do.

His spread option offense, led by senior quarterback Craig Candeto and slot backs Tony Lane and Eric Roberts, needs to get more efficient in the passing game and cut down on the turnovers that often put Navy in a catch-up mode last year and rendered its fine ground game useless.

The Midshipmen switched from a 4-3 to a 3-4 defense, partly to create more pursuit out of its linebackers, led by seniors Eddie Carthan and Ben Mathews. Navy surrendered too many big plays during a 2002 season in which it allowed 202.5 rushing yards and 36.3 points per game, and ranked nearly last (116th) in the country in pass defense.

The special teams were a study in fumbled kickoff returns, muffed punts and spotty placekicking.

"Everybody has got room for improvement. Losing is a cycle," Johnson said. "When you lose, you start to make excuses and it's never you. Excuse-making is something we're trying to get away from. Losing is never good, but it opens your eyes a little bit. You realize how much work you have to do."

Johnson is intrigued by how much youth will push the Navy program forward. About 15 plebes will dress for today's game, and a handful, including wide-out Jason Tomlinson, slot back Trey Hines, outside linebacker David Mahoney and kick returner Brian Hampton, could get considerable playing time.

Beating VMI would be an ideal way for the Midshipmen to walk the walk after talking about a turnaround. The Keydets are coached by Cal McCombs, a longtime associate and competitor of Johnson's who is engineering a reversal of fortune in Lexington, Va. The Keydets are coming off a 6-6 season (their best year since 1981) after going a combined 4-29 in their previous three years.

Quarterback Jonathan Wilson, a second-year freshman, gets his first start for VMI, which likes to spread the field with multiple formations and will try to get the ball to sophomore running back Sean Mizzer and junior wide-out Greg Carlson.

Candeto, in his second year as a starter and his final season at Navy, sees a victory today setting the tone for an enjoyable season. For a change.

"It's important to come out and let people know we're going to be for real this year in our home stadium, the new stadium, and get great fan support from that game," Candeto said. "You always want to start off on the right foot. It's no different for us. There are high expectations for us this year."

Today's game

VMI (0-0) at Navy (0-0)

Site: Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, Annapolis

Time: 1:30 p.m.

Radio: WJFK (1300 AM), WNAV (1430 AM)

Series: Navy leads 7-0

Last meeting: Navy won, 42-7, on Oct. 18, 1997, during the Midshipmen's last winning season. That was also the last time that VMI played a Division I-A program.

Navy offense vs. VMI defense: Navy will look to its experienced core of senior QB Craig Candeto, senior FB Bronston Carroll and slot backs Tony Lane and Eric Roberts, who helped the Midshipmen produce one of the more prolific rushing attacks in the nation last year. VMI's defense, led by senior CB Musa Sarki, senior LB Derik Screen and junior DT Vicheal Foxx, helped the Keydets post a 6-6 record that included victories over The Citadel and Wofford. VMI, in its first year as a Big South Conference member, will try to contain the Midshipmen's spread option, which figures to be sharper in coach Paul Johnson's second season, and will feature newcomers such as plebe WR Jason Tomlinson.

Navy defense vs. VMI offense: The Midshipmen were in over their heads against a tough schedule a year ago, one of the main reasons Navy allowed 36.3 points and more than 200 yards rushing per game. Led by senior LBs Eddie Carthan and Ben Mathews and junior FS Josh Smith, Navy will try to exploit the inexperience of VMI second-year freshman QB Jonathan Wilson, who is making his first start. Sophomore RB Sean Mizzer, junior wide-out Greg Carlson and senior receiver Matt Carlson, who finished second on the team last year with 433 receiving yards.

Special teams: Punter John Skaggs gives Navy one of its better performers, while the placekicking job has been much more unsettled with plebe Chase Hobby, junior Geoff Blumenfeld and senior Eric Rolfs vying for time. The Midshipmen must reduce their turnovers on special teams. VMI senior Matt Sharpe has made 10 of 14 field-goal attempts in his career and also handles the punting.

-- Gary Lambrecht

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