Quarterback Aaron Polanco was the last Navy football player to walk off the field after last night's 27-12 win over Duke. When Polanco finally reached the Midshipmen's locker room under the east stands of Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, his teammates let out a big cheer. It might as well have been a sigh of relief.
With all eyes on Polanco, he played nearly flawlessly in his first game in place of former starter Craig Candeto. Polanco, a senior from Wimberley, Tex., directed Navy Coach Paul Johnson's triple-option, spread offense with precision, running for 130 yards and one touchdown on 23 carries. Polanco also delivered an efficient passing game, throwing for 129 yards and one touchdown on 8-for-9 passing.
Navy quarterback Aaron Polanco, left, is tackled by Duke linebacker Malcolm Ruff.
(Chris Gardner - AP)
"Aaron played great," fullback Kyle Eckel said. "Everybody was questioning Aaron about this or that, and I think this game speaks for itself. Anybody that questioned Aaron's abilities can just look at this tape."
Eckel would probably like to burn the tape of first-half highlights. The Midshipmen trailed 6-0 late in the second quarter, after Eckel fumbled twice -- at the Blue Devils 15-yard line and into their end zone. Polanco's only big mistake -- fumbling a pitch on an option play -- happened late in the first half and led to Duke's second field goal.
With only 57 seconds left in the half, Navy tied the game when Polanco threw a 58-yard touchdown pass down the left sideline to sophomore Jason Tomlinson. The Midshipmen out-gained the Blue Devils, 210 yards to 157, in the first half, but the game remained tied after senior Geoff Blumenfeld missed the extra-point kick after Polanco's touchdown pass.
"We did everything we could in the first half to try and lose the game," Johnson said. "I was ecstatic to be tied at halftime."
On Navy's second possession of the second half, Polanco put his team ahead for good. On fourth and 1, he faked a dive handoff to Eckel, ran right and faked safety Alex Green for a 28-yard touchdown run. Blumenfeld's extra point with 9 minutes 44 seconds left in the third quarter put Navy ahead, 13-6.
Duke came right back on its next series, as quarterback Chris Dapolito scored on a five-yard run. But Blue Devils sophomore Matt Brooks also missed an extra point, leaving the Midshipmen ahead, 13-12.
"I thought it was a huge momentum swing when they missed the extra point," Johnson said.
By the end of the third quarter, Navy started wearing down the Blue Devils with its running game. After leading the nation in rushing with 323 yards per game in 2003, the Midshipmen ran for 301 yards on 57 carries against Duke. Eckel had 100 yards on 23 carries, including two three-yard touchdowns, with 12 seconds left in the third quarter and with 3:06 left in the game.
Eckel, a senior from Philadelphia, gained a reputation as one of the most reliable runners in college football last season. A bruising fullback, he lost only three fumbles in 236 carries -- one every 78.7 carries -- while running for 1,249 yards and 10 touchdowns in 13 games. But Eckel lost two fumbles in his first eight carries against the Blue Devils, and they couldn't have occurred at more inopportune times for the Midshipmen.
After Duke took a 3-0 lead on Brooks's 29-yard field goal on its opening possession, Navy drove deep into Blue Devils' territory. Eckel picked up first downs with runs of 11 and five yards, the latter giving the Midshipmen a new set of downs at the Duke 22. But on second and 6 at the 18, Eckel never got a secure handle on the football and dropped it, and Blue Devils defensive tackle Casey Camero recovered at the 15.
Early in the second quarter, Navy put together a 13-play drive, and appeared to score after Eckel took a handoff, darted right and ran for the end zone. But Duke linebacker Malcolm Ruff popped the football out of Eckel's hands before he crossed the goal line. The Blue Devils recovered in the end zone for a touchback, securing their 3-0 lead with 10:55 left in the first half.
"It's frustrating," Eckel said. "I don't know what was going on. I just started holding the ball with two arms after the second fumble. It's ridiculous. We were moving up and down the field. The only thing that was stopping us was me. We should have been up 20-6, and the only reason we weren't was me."
Later in the second quarter, Polanco and Blumenfeld joined in the charity. On second and seven near midfield, Polanco's pitch was disrupted by Duke defensive end Phillip Alexander, who recovered Polanco's fumble at the Navy 35. Brooks kicked a 35-yard field goal six plays later for a 6-0 lead. On the Midshipmen's next series, they faced fourth and six at their 37, and Blumenfeld tried to run for a first down on a fake punt, but was stopped for no gain. The Blue Devils took over and missed a field goal.
"We didn't have an karma in the first half," Johnson said. "Everything that could have gone wrong did. Three years ago, we couldn't have overcome that. But these guys believe they can fight through it now."