Ground game on display with CIC trophy up for grabs
For the service academies, bowl berths and national rankings are nice, but the real prize is the Commander-In-Chief's trophy. Navy's defense starts Saturday against Air Force.
Brian Hampton has a message for his plebes, the up-to-no-good freshmen at the Naval Academy.
"Do not," he said, "mess with my room."
Hampton explained that each year, during the week of Navy's games with Air Force and Army, mischievous plebes raid the rooms of upperclassmen.
Hampton should know.
Last year, when he was the backup to Lamar Owens, he came back to his room and found a mess of pancake mix, red Kool-Aid powder, cereal and "some kind of liquid" that crusted on his clothes and the floor.
This week, the prankster plebes already have victimized backup quarterback Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada, who had his room shaving-creamed (a can of foam is punctured and thrown into the room, where it sprays until the pressure is gone).
"One year, somebody stuck a dead deer's head in somebody's bed, underneath their sheets," Hampton said.
Hampton made darn sure he wouldn't be the target as Navy prepares for the start of its Commander-In-Chief's trophy defense Saturday at Air Force.
"Hey, don't do this to my room," he told the plebes. "I don't need this extra hassle. There's a game to practice for, to plan for, so you guys, just leave me alone and let me go ahead and prepare."
The plebes would be well served to obey.
Hampton is quickly blossoming in his first year as Navy's quarterback. He was named national Offensive Player of the Week by the Master Coaches Survey after tallying 182 rushing yards, 141 passing yards and four touchdowns (three rushing, one passing) in Navy's 41-17 win over Connecticut, which entered last Saturday's game as the nation's 10th-ranked defense.
After struggling early, Hampton has 353 rushing yards, 288 passing yards, one interception and eight touchdowns (six rushing, two passing) in his last three games.
"Brian's got some ability," Midshipmen coach Paul Johnson said. "He's a talented kid. Maybe early on he was pressing a little too hard.
"He put a lot of pressure on himself."
Hampton is learning to manage the pressure, though the tension will be high Saturday in Colorado Springs. Navy has held the Commander-In-Chief's trophy for three straight seasons after Air Force claimed it from 1998-2002.
Air Force, after losing to Navy only twice between 1982-2002, has dropped each of its last three games by three points. The Falcons (2-1) don't waffle when it comes to priorities, and the CIC trophy tops their list.
"We have pictures [in the locker room] of the Commander-In-Chief's trophy and of people making big plays against both Army and Navy," Falcons safety Julian Madrid said. "We want to send those seniors to Washington so they can meet the President. It's just the pride that you take playing at a service academy that you held the trophy."
Added Falcons coach Fisher DeBerry: "They own it right now. It's our challenge to take it away from them."
The Falcons have won their last two games after nearly stunning Tennessee on Sept. 9 (they fell 31-30 after a two-point conversion attempt failed with 1:35 left). They rank third nationally in rushing offense (290 ypg), two spots behind perennial leader Navy (357.2 ypg).
The defense is also making progress. Air Force has allowed just 118 rushing yards in wins over Wyoming and New Mexico. Madrid, a 205-pound junior, earned Mountain West Defensive Player of the Week honors against the Lobos after tallying two sacks, an interception and a forced fumble. He forced the fumble on the second play of the game.
"Everyone's understanding of the defense has gone way up since last year," Madrid said. "I know the D-line's gap, what the linebackers are doing and where exactly my help is needed. We're just out there to prove everyone wrong, that we are a strong defensive team."
The Falcons can solidify themselves against a Navy offense that averages six yards per carry this season. Junior slotback Reggie Campbell is averaging 10.6 yards per carry with four touchdowns, while junior fullback Adam Ballard averages 88 rushing yards per game.
Navy returned eight starters from an offense that ranked 20th nationally in 2005, and despite the uncertainty at quarterback, Johnson said he wasn't worried.
But Hampton struggled early, as he held onto mistakes for far too long.
"When you're off on the sidelines," Hampton said, "you almost look at the quarterbacks as if they're playing a perfect game. That's the notion I got from it, that I had to play a perfect game."
It was a very imperfect game against Massachusetts that forced Hampton to realize the realities of his role. Splitting snaps with Kaheaku-Enhada, Hampton fumbled three times (losing one) and threw an interception against the Minutemen, but Navy survived to win 21-20.
One week later, Hampton rushed for two touchdowns and completed 8 of 11 passes as Navy lit up Stanford 37-9.
"It's been an evolution," he said.
Air Force wants to see a regression this week.
Madrid remembers talking about the Navy game with his teammates in spring practice. Several players on each team were recruited by both service academies, including Falcons quarterback Shaun Carney, who ranks fourth in the Mountain West in rushing (73 ypg).
"We picked the best one, coming to Air Force," Madrid said. "We just need to come out and show everybody that."
Navy has other ideas. Hampton and his fellow seniors don't want to be the class that loses an important piece of hardware.
In order to get Navy's house in order, Hampton needs his own room spic and span.
But what if the plebes don't listen?
"I would go berserk," Hampton said, laughing to himself. "I gave them a warning, and I know my plebes. They'll respect it."
Adam Rittenberg covers college football for the Arlington Heights (Ill.) Daily Herald.