It's a relatively straightforward question, although I can certainly see some ambiguity with regards to what exactly constitutes a 'signature win.' A signature win, in my estimation anyway, should be one that defines both the coach and his program, and with some degree shows that the program has reached a level greater than it had previously obtained. But is that really all that defines a signature win, or do factors such as rivalries, TV exposure, and/or underdog status also affect whether a win constitutes a "signature win?"
For the purpose of this conversation, I've left this as a fairly open ended question, one in which I hope can be addressed by some of the readers. I've installed a new polling function on the side of this blog, so I encourage all our readers out there to take part in this poll, whether they be lifelong Navy fans or just casual observers. I've gone through all the games Navy has won during Paul Johnson's tenure, and narrowed it down to eight wins which I think a reasonable argument could be made for. I'm also open to the idea that there has not been a "signature win" during Johnson's tenure, or that I've missed the mark altogether and not even given mention to the win in my analysis. The nominees I've selected are as follows:
Navy breaks ten game losing streak with 58-12 drudging of Army (2002)
2002 was a tough year for Navy, which lost ten straight games after winning the opener against SMU. The 2002 Army-Navy game though was arguably the first time fans across the country got to see Johnson's triple option offense work to perfection, as the Midshipmen blew out the Black Knights in a game which was suppose to be much, much closer. This game set the tone for the 2003 season and arguably for the Navy teams to follow, and can't be discounted when talking about signature wins during the Paul Johnson era. It also raised a considerable amount of interest in the program, which had been doing so poorly over the past several years that many fans lost interest.
Navy Upsets 25th ranked Air Force at FedEx Field (2003)
Well, this is my pick, but don't let that deter you from voting for another game. I just think that when you consider the intensity of the rivalry and Air Force's dominance up to that point, the win at FedEx Field probably meant the most to the team, the program, and its fans during Johnson's tenure. This was a very good Falcon football team which actually finished the year at 7-5 but lost three games in overtime and could have been much better. The Mids may not have dominated this game, but this is still Navy's only win over a ranked opponent during Johnson's tenure here and stands as the turning point in the long and heated rivalry between the Academies.
Navy Destroys Central Michigan 63-34 on Senior Day (2003)
Craig Candeto led the offense on touchdown scoring drives on all of Navy's eight possessions, as the Midshipmen scored their largest point total during the Paul Johnson era. This game, more than any other, demonstrated the high scoring capacity of the flexbone offense and demonstrated Johnson's ability to put up "mad points" on the opposition. However, this game was not broadcast on TV (at least to my knowledge) and came against a Chippewas team which had only won one game all year against a I-A opponent.
Navy Beats Air Force on ESPN in Falcon Stadium (2004)
This was a greta exposure game, even though the Falcons weren't all that great. Sure it was played on a weeknight, but going into Falcon stadium the year after upsetting Air Force wasn't going to be easy, but the Mids managed to show Air Force and the country that Navy football was back and it was ready to stay.
Navy Annihilates Rutgers 54-21 on Senior Day (2004)
Once again, this was one of the most significant beatings a Paul Johnson coached team put on an opponent since he's been at the Academy. The Rutgers team in 2004 was actually not the bad, and Navy wowed Bowl committees by running all over the Scarlet Knights. Shorty after this game the Mids agreed to play in the Emerald Bowl and the rest, as they say, was history. Subsequent PhatPhelix highlight films made this game the stuff of legend, as Kyle Eckle literally ran through the entire Rutgers defense untouched as "Super Bon Bon" blared in the background.
Navy takes down New Mexico with "The Drive" (2004)
Paul Johnson and the Midshipmen had managed to earn a spot in the Houston Bowl the year before but came up short against Mike Leach's Red Raiders. With limited national TV exposure that year (the Notre Dame and Army games were the only games on national TV) most of the country was still unsure about the Midshipmen, and there was a prevailing idea (as there still is) that Navy could only beat really bad teams. Navy's offense showed the nation it could put up points, while the defense made a stirring goal line stand late in the game to prevent a comeback. The big story here was the famed 14+ minute drive which effectively killed the game, and has subsequently been refereed to as "pulling a New Mexico." This was also Navy's first Bowl win since 1996, and capped of a 10-2 season which saw the Mids rise to #24 in the final polls and saw Head Coach Paul Johnson win the Bobby Dodd coach of the year award.
Joey Bullen Makes it Three in a Row, lifting Navy over Air Force (2005)
I've argued the importance of this game in the past, and have stated that this was in many ways the "nail in the coffin" of Fischer DeBerry's run at Air Force. More than any other Navy win against Air Force over the past four years, this one was clearly the most demoralizing to the Falcons, and arguably turned Navy's season around after a 1-2 start in 2005. Paul Johnson's cool demeanour and confidence in his offense played out in the end, as Joey Bullen nailed a 47-yard field goal with under a second left to make it three straight against the Falcons. This win was not only a testament to both the will of Navy's players and the confidence of the Navy coaching staff, but also to the tremendous choke-job of Air Force's offense and to a certain extent, Shaun Carney.
Mids put up 51 against Colorado St. to win the Poinsettia Bowl (2005)
This was a prime time game on ESPN2 that seemed to really validate Paul Johnson's offense and the job which he had done at Navy over his tenure. Colorado State wasn't a superpower at 6-5 coming into this game, but they were the favorites and most people expected the Rams to easily dispatch of the Midshipmen. Of course that was total nonsense, and the Midshipmen, led by quarterback Lamar Owens, soon showed the nation just how good a well coached option offense could be. This game also made Reggie Campbell something of a household name to college football fans across the country, and brought an unprecedented amount of ESPN exposure to the Midshipmen that would resonate through 2006 and is expected to continue through 2007.
These are the games that most come to mind, although if you think there are others of merit, please let us know. Don't forget to vote in the poll to your right!