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Navy's Final Gem: An Emerald

Midshipmen Conclude 10-2 Season: Navy 34, New Mexico 19

By Steve Fainaru
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 31, 2004; Page D01

SAN FRANCISCO, Dec. 30 -- Navy football's first 10-win season in 99 years ended with quarterback Aaron Polanco leading an astonishing 26-play drive across a wet field against one of the nation's toughest defenses.

The drive consumed 14 minutes 26 seconds -- nearly an entire quarter -- and traveled 94 yards into the wind before Geoff Blumenfeld kicked a 22-yard field goal, completing Navy's 34-19 victory over New Mexico Thursday in the third Emerald Bowl.

Quarterback Aaron Polanco runs for three touchdowns and passes for another as Navy tops New Mexico, 34-19, Thursday in the Emerald Bowl to conclude a 10-2 season. (Jonathan Newton - The Washington Post)

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Navy's victory in the Emerald Bowl ended its second-best season. The Midshipmen's top 10 seasons:

1905: 10-1-1

2004: 10-2

1926: 9-0-1

1957: 9-1-1

1960: 9-2

1963: 9-2

1907: 9-2-1

1908: 9-2-1

1978: 9-3

1996: 9-3

The long march provided a grinding summary not only of how Navy won its first bowl game since 1996 but also how it turned around its program under Coach Paul Johnson, who took over in 2002 after the Midshipmen went 1-20 the previous two seasons combined.

During this 10-2 season, the best since Navy went 10-1-1 in 1905, Johnson relied heavily on the previously untested Polanco, a quantitative economics major from Wimberly, Tex., who was born so tiny (2 pounds) in 1983 he was simultaneously baptized and given his last rites.

Now an unimposing 6 feet, 208 pounds, Polanco was all over the field Thursday, diving into puddle-filled end zones, hurdling defenders, catching halfback passes. The game's most valuable offensive player ran for three touchdowns and gained 136 yards on 26 carries. He threw for another touchdown, a 61-yard strike to wide receiver Corey Dryden that was Navy's longest of the season. He also caught two passes from slotback Frank Divis; one set up a touchdown and the other extended the long fourth-quarter march.

"I think this will go down in the annals as one of the special Navy teams," said Johnson, who has led the Midshipmen to an 18-7 record the past two years. Navy was the second-least penalized team in the nation this season and the third-best rushing team after leading the nation in rushing last year.

Asked about his multi-faceted performance, Polanco shrugged, "Who knew?"

The victory carried its own sobering reality for Navy. A team that finished 10-2 will lose 16 senior starters and 36 seniors overall. Upon graduation, each player will begin mandatory military service and possible tours in Iraq, in particular those players who have selected service in the U.S. Marine Corps.

The Marines have operational responsibility for some of the most dangerous regions in Iraq, including Anbar province, which contains Fallujah, and the area of Northern Babil province that has come to be known as the Triangle of Death. In the past three months, two former Navy football players turned Marines, 1st Lt. Ron Winchester and 2nd Lt. J.P. Blecksmith, were killed in Anbar province.

Polanco has chosen to become a Marine pilot.

"I think it's something that we all realize; we're not just here to play football," said Polanco. He said the possibility that the players would be sent to Iraq is "a realization we've come to expect." Divis said the possibility of serving made Thursday's win "even more meaningful."

The contest had promised to be more challenging offensively for Navy, which finished with 274 total yards, 124 through the air.

New Mexico had made it to San Francisco on the strength of a persistent running attack and a defense that allowed just 69 total points in the final five games of the regular season, all wins.

However, near the end of the first quarter, Lobos quarterback Kole McKamey drifted right on an option play, then made a long pitch to DonTrell Moore, the three-time all-conference tailback. Just as Moore caught the ball, he was decimated by left cornerback Vaughn Kelly.

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