When Paul Johnson was named coach at Navy in December 2001, the Midshipmen were one of the worst teams in the country, having gone 1--20 over the previous two years. But since struggling through a 2--10 season in 2002, the 47-year-old Johnson has engineered one of the biggest turnarounds in the nation, leading the Midshipmen to 13 victories in their last 18 games. The latest win, a 24--21 thriller at Air Force last Thursday night, improved Navy to 5--0, its best start since 1979. "It's great to have that winning feeling," says senior quarterback Aaron Polanco, who rushed for 71 yards and two touchdowns against the Falcons.

Johnson, who went 62--10 and won two Division IAA national championships at Georgia Southern from 1997 through 2001, was the academy's offensive coordinator in 1995 and '96. (In the latter season the Midshipmen were 9--3, their first winning record since 1982.) Running the same triple option attack, Navy led the nation in rushing last season, averaging 323.2 yards per game, and the Middies rank eighth (267.4) this year.

The star of the backfield is 5'11", 240-pound senior Kyle Eckel, a 1,200yard rusher last season who has run for 387 yards and six touchdowns this fall. "Kyle's got good size and balance," says Johnson. "He's a big guy who's hard to tackle."

Next Saturday at Giants Stadium, the Midshipmen face their biggest test against Notre Dame, a team that has beaten them 40 straight times, the longest streak in college football. Navy has closed the gap in the last two years, losing 30--23 in 2002 and 27--24 last season, and a victory would be a huge step for a program that Johnson says is still "happy just to win a game." No matter what happens, there is no denying what Johnson has already accomplished. With the victory over Air Force, Navy all but assured itself the Commander in Chief's Trophy for the second straight year. (All the Midshipmen must do to retain it is beat woeful Army on Dec. 4.) Before the Middies won the trophy last season, they hadn't held service-academy bragging rights since 1981.

"The guys who come here are so special," says Johnson. "To see their hard work finally rewarded is the best part for me."

--Mark Beech

COLOR PHOTOJACK DEMPSEY/AP (POLANCO) SMOOTH SAILING Polanco has helped the Middies race off to their best start in 25 years.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)