Aaron Polanco remembers when Navy Coach Paul Johnson pulled him and safety Josh Smith into his office this past spring and told the soon-to-be seniors that their teammates voted them co-captains.
"Coach Johnson told me being a captain isn't about being a vocal leader," said Polanco, who had spent the previous three seasons as a backup quarterback. "It's about going there and doing the right things to get them to follow you."
That's what the soft-spoken, first-year starter has done in leading the Midshipmen to their first 5-0 start since 1979 entering Saturday's showdown against Notre Dame (4-2) at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.
Navy's success against the Fighting Irish largely will hinge on Polanco running the option offense.
Polanco either keeps the ball or laterals it, often to fullback Kyle Eckel, who has rushed for 387 yards and six touchdowns on 99 carries. Polanco has rushed for a team-high 464 yards and seven touchdowns on 104 carries, but he also has been effective throwing the football.
Polanco's biggest completion this season came in the fourth quarter against Air Force on Sept. 30, after the Falcons tied the score at 14. On third and 19, Polanco found junior Marco Nelson across the middle for a 66-yard gain and, five plays later, Eckel scored to give Navy a 21-14 lead.
"Aaron's made plays for us all year, and that pass he made [to Nelson] was one of the bigger ones," Johnson said of Polanco, who has completed 30 of 47 passes for 563 yards with two touchdowns and three interceptions this season.
After Air Force rallied to tie the game with 1 minute 54 seconds remaining, Polanco responded. On the first play, Polanco burst up the middle for 32 yards to the Air Force 29-yard line, and Eckel followed with a 13-yard run. Three plays later, Geoff Blumenfeld, who had missed four previous field goal attempts, connected from 30 yards to give the Midshipmen their fourth victory in 18 games in Colorado Springs and first since 1996.
Navy is looking for its first victory over Notre Dame in 40 meetings -- an NCAA record for consecutive victories over an opponent -- in front of a national TV audience.
"We don't have anyone on our team that Notre Dame recruited," Johnson said. "We don't have anyone they even sent a [recruiting] letter to. They are supposed to win."
Navy has not defeated the Fighting Irish since 1963, but has come close the past few years. Last year, Notre Dame's D.J. Fitzpatrick made a 40-yard field goal on the game's final play in a 27-24 victory and, in 2002, Navy squandered a 23-15 lead with five minutes remaining and fell, 30-23.
"We've come close before, but each game is different and those games have no bearing to this one," Eckel said. "Notre Dame knows this is our Super Bowl."
Polanco, who did not play a down as freshman, saw limited action the past two seasons behind Craig Candeto. Though Polanco's performance this year has drawn attention across the country, the people who knew him in high school have not been surprised.
Polanco grew up in Wimberley, Tex., 35 miles southwest of Austin. He led Wimberley High to its first undefeated regular season his senior year and was one of its most popular students.
"I knew he was going to make things happen at Navy, even when I was watching them play Air Force on television I knew he was going to come through with the game on the line," said Dan Burk, Polanco's coach at Wimberley. "He was either going to make a big run or make a clutch throw because he's been doing that since he started playing football."