Keys to the game
1. Have the option clicking. The Lobos live on their defense, which ranked first in the Mountain West Conference against rushing and scoring and was first in sacks. Head coach Rocky Long is a defensive wizard, but will 40 days be sufficient time to digest Navy's tricky spread option attack? New Mexico will have to be extremely disciplined to counter it.
2. Desire will play a huge role. The Midshipmen are adamant about winning a bowl game for the first time in eight years and have played with their usual dedication and tenacity all season except for one slip at Tulane. New Mexico has lost in bowls two straight years and was embarrassed by Oregon State, 55-14, in the Las Vegas Bowl last season. Greater intensity will be crucial.
3. Maximize use of possessions. Both teams like to grind it out with the running game, take charge of the clock and keep the ball away from the opposing offense. Navy cannot afford to fall behind by too much too soon or it will be taken out of its offensive strength. Ditto New Mexico.
When Navy has the ball
The option will face one of its most severe challenges. In their past four games, the Lobos allowed only 107 rushing yards in 138 carries, with 24 sacks contributing mightily to the paltry total. Navy will not change its approach, feeling its way to find which of the alternatives is working best.
Some opponents have been successful at a relative shutdown of fullback Kyle Eckel, the first option, but found themselves vulnerable to others, primarily the runs of quarterback Aaron Polanco. Rutgers was burned by a passel of Midshipmen slotbacks, who rushed for 247 yards in a 54-21 Navy rout.
New Mexico has a gambling, physical defense that operates out of an unusual scheme, outstanding linebackers in Fola Fashola and Nick Speegle, the co-leaders with 84 tackles, and a ball hawk in the secondary in Brandon Payne, who tops the nation in passes defensed and broken up.
So, the likelihood is that the gambling will sometimes pay off and sometimes cost the Lobos. It wouldn't be surprising to see Navy resort to some gimmickry in an effort to make New Mexico pay for overzealousness.
When New Mexico has the ball
This will be a matter of bulk vs. speed. New Mexico has a massive front wall anchored by center Ryan Cook and tackle Claude Terrell that will outweigh Navy's front three by an average of more than 50 pounds per man, so it will mandatory that the three-man Midshipmen line create enough havoc to keep the behemoths from effectively blocking their linebackers.
The heart of the Lobos' attack is junior tailback DonTrell Moore, who has gained 3,667 career yards. He is strong, elusive and resourceful and seldom falls on first contact. Navy will have to get more than one man to him to bring him down in most instances.
Quarterback Kole McKamey is a threat to scramble, but basically this team prefers to pound foes into submission. Unlike pass-happy Texas Tech in the Houston Bowl last season, the Lobos throw sparingly and possess only one real deep threat, wide receiver Hank Baskett, far and away the team leader with 49 catches.
With the exception of Tulane, where two passes resulted in long-yardage scores, Navy's defenders have been effective at keeping the ball in front of them. They shouldn't have to worry too much about that this time.
Two of the underrated coaches in the nation, one an offensive guru, the other a defensive mastermind, will match wits.
Navy's Paul Johnson is beginning to gather recognition for resurrecting a moribund program that was 3-30 over a three-year stretch and is since 17-7 and in a second consecutive postseason game. He is now being mentioned prominently when coaching vacancies open, although the academy has him signed to a long-term contract through 2009.
A proponent of option football, Johnson is viewed by New Mexico's Rocky Long as the foremost authority on the subject. He is surrounded by a competent staff of assistants headed by defensive coordinator Buddy Green. Johnson was 62-10 and won two consecutive Division I-AA national titles at Georgia Southern before coming to Annapolis.
Long has the Lobos in a third straight bowl with a blue-collar style that stresses sound, low-risk offense and a swarming defense, his specialty. The past four seasons, New Mexico has gone 28-21 and been a winning program each year.
He is the first former Lobos player to coach New Mexico, having played quarterback on the teams with the two most prolific rushing seasons in school history (1970-71). He previously served as the defensive coordinator at Wyoming, Oregon State and UCLA.
With one more victory, he will tie Roy Johnson for the most ever at New Mexico (41). Unlike many college coaches, he does not have an agent, but he has been contacted about more enticing jobs.
This has been an Achilles' heel for Navy. Kicker Geoff Blumenfeld, who is from Granite Bay, Calif., about 60 miles from San Francisco, has made only three of 10 field-goal tries and has missed three inside 30 yards. He has also flubbed four extra points. The team also had difficulty punting, using a rugby style, earlier in the season, but Eric Shuey has somewhat stabilized the area after going to a conventional kick.
New Mexico's Wes Zunker is the squad's leading scorer after converting all 26 extra-point attempts and going 11-for-16 on field-goal tries. The punter, Tyler Gaus, averages a respectable 40.4 yards.
The kick return game is adequate for the Midshipmen, but not spectacular. They have not returned a kick to the end zone during Johnson's three-year tenure. New Mexico returned two blocked punts for touchdowns against Air Force.
Both teams finished strongly. New Mexico with five straight wins and Navy with a 96-34 scoring edge on Rutgers and Army--and three of the opposing touchdowns came when the games were long decided. It's been raining all week, so the teams' non-reliance on the pass will serve both well. The game should be fairly low scoring and rapidly played, with the Midshipmen eking out a victory.
Navy 20, New Mexico 17
Time: 4:30 p.m. today
Site: SBC Park, San Francisco
Records: Navy 9-2; New Mexico 7-4