Navy 29, Vanderbilt 26
The Navy football team turned toward the Brigade of Midshipmen immediately following a 29-26 victory over Vanderbilt before 32,809 yesterday at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis, prepared to sing the school's alma mater. But there was a little business to take care of first.
As the players assembled, the Brigade began chanting, "4 and 0! 4 and 0!" Navy is undefeated after four games, continuing its best start to a season since 1979.
Navy also has defeated teams from the Southeastern Conference and ACC in the same season for the first time since 1984.
"We laid the foundation last year," said senior safety Josh Smith, who had 15 tackles. "We knew we had to come out and start the season off as we ended last year. We already had confidence in ourselves. We just had to prove it to everybody else."
The Midshipmen proved it to Vanderbilt (0-3) yesterday. The Commodores entered with all of their defensive starters back from last year. Their coaches believed that experience would help stop Navy's triple-option offense because the Commodores had seen it before, in a 37-27 Navy win last year in Nashville.
Navy rushed for 342 yards and held the ball for 17 of the final 20 minutes in that game.
Yesterday, however, the Midshipmen had a wrinkle for the Commodores -- namely, a passing game spurred by senior quarterback Aaron Polanco.
Polanco threw for 176 yards and one touchdown and rushed for a team-high 84 yards and one touchdown. In all, he was responsible for 260 of Navy's 366 yards.
"Aaron made some great plays," Navy Coach Paul Johnson said. "Some really great individual plays."
Vanderbilt committed most of its defense to stopping the run, and that left single coverage on Navy's slot receivers. And that was where the Midshipmen attacked.
On his first throw to a slot receiver, Polanco overthrew freshman Reggie Campbell, who was open near the end zone midway through the first quarter.
But the play worked when Polanco completed a 45-yard touchdown pass to junior Marco Nelson to tie the game at 7 with 12 minutes left in the first half. The Midshipmen threw to a slot again late in the third quarter, and it resulted in a 34-yard completion to senior Eric Roberts that put the ball on the Vanderbilt 7.
Navy scored two plays later, on a five-yard run by senior Frank Divis for a 22-19 lead with 6:28 left. Navy never trailed again.
"That was something our coaches noticed from the way they played us last year," Polanco said. "They were putting a lot of people inside to stop the run, and we had man coverage on the outside."
Said Vanderbilt Coach Bobby Johnson: "We did a good job containing their fullback [Kyle Eckel], and we played well on the perimeter. But the long pass is the killer and they got us with that a couple times."
Vanderbilt led 16-14 following a blocked punt that went out of the end zone for a safety early in the third quarter. On its next drive, Vanderbilt sophomore Patrick Johnson made a 44-yard field goal for a 19-14 lead with 10:52 left in the third.
Navy took its 22-19 lead following the score by Divis. It took a 29-19 lead following a 22-yard touchdown run by Polanco with 4:28 to play.
The Commodores closed to 29-26 following a 21-yard touchdown pass from junior Jay Cutler to sophomore Marlon White with 2:30 to play. Smith recovered the onside kick, and Navy got one first down to run out the clock.
Cutler was dangerous enough that Navy had two players simulate him in practice this week -- one an option specialist, the other a passer. Cutler finished with 176 yards and two touchdown passes and also rushed for a touchdown yesterday.
Navy is off to its best start since it began 6-0 in 1979. To equal that mark this season, Navy has to beat two of its most prominent opponents -- Air Force on Thursday night and Notre Dame on Oct. 16.
"It feels great to be 4-0," Johnson said. "It was a lot of hard work. . . . All I can think about now is we play Thursday, and I have to go watch some tape."
Midshipmen Note: Roberts became the first player in school history to have more than 1,000 yards rushing and receiving in his career. He is the 34th player in NCAA history to accomplish that feat.