Frozen Moment, Hot Start; Duke Game Review

It was a much talked-about element of Navy's offseason. It was the piece of the puzzle that neither Paul Johnson nor anyone else in the Midshipmen camp could have counted on with rock-solid certainty. It was the ingredient that had to be in the pot for the Mids to cook up a winning recipe in this momentous season.

No, not Aaron Polanco himself. Everyone in Annapolis knows that Craig Candeto's former backup is a great kid with a level head on his shoulders.

No, the absolute Annapolis necessity was not Polanco in his entirety, but specifically the quarterback's ability to come up with a handful of big-hitting pass plays in key situations. After last fall's breakthrough campaign, everyone in America--and especially 11 opponents, their head coaches, defensive coordinators and defensive units--knows that Navy can run like crazy. But for that running game to continue to thrive, and for Navy to be able to withstand any adverse situation, Polanco--charged with the responsibility of throwing the pigskin in addition to leading the team and managing the triple option as a decision-maker--had to be able to make a handful of big pass plays in the games when the Mids were under fire and in trouble.

Well, it didn't take long for Polanco to be tested. And to the delight of Coach Johnson and everyone else in Annapolis, Aaron didn't err with the air attack when it really counted, and that made all the difference in Navy's season-opening 27-12 win over Duke on Saturday evening.

Two Kyle Eckel fumbles--a startling display of weakness from the offensive player considered to be Navy's rock of dependability--kept the Brigade from doing push-ups throughout the first 29 minutes and 3 seconds of the first half. And in a game that would take a startlingly fast 2 hours and 44 minutes to play, the clock was working against Navy in more ways than one. Down 6-0, the Midshipmen had to score; otherwise, Duke had the potential to open up a multi-possession lead in the second half and force Navy to play the desperate kind of catch-up game it is manifestly unsuited to play. Given the game's rapid pace, the Mids could only count on so many possessions in the second half. They needed a thunderbolt, the kind of quick-strike dagger that the vertical passing game provides.

This was the precise situation in which Aaron Polanco's mettle would have to be challenged, refined by the hellacious fire of big-time college football.

Safe to say, the icy cool Polanco turned the fires of pressure into a frozen moment that will be remembered for a long, long time if this season, already laden with electricity and promise, becomes something particularly special.

The slinging sailor, with just 57 seconds left in the first half, fired a 58-yard touchdown pass to Jason Tomlinson. And although the PAT failed, the Midshipmen had their momentum boost, had the confidence of knowing their leader could deliver the goods as a passer, and had the double relief of knowing that their deficit was gone and that the ice had been broken on the scoreboard.

So often, it's that first touchdown that's the hardest to get. The air craft carrier can't leave the harbor until the engines begin to slowly get going. Full performance can't occur until the nerves and rust are shaken with a display of quality. Polanco not only provided that key breakthrough for Navy's offense on Saturday; he did so in the very way he's not accustomed to: with the forward pass. The fact that Polanco could power Navy's offense with his right arm--and not his right foot, making that quick first step down the line on the triple option--opens up the doors for the potential of a huge season. As long as Polanco can keep this frozen moment in mind, feeding off the confidence that his thunderbolt to Tomlinson should offer, Navy's offense will have both a superior leader and superior balance.

And then?

And then, just imagine how tough it will be to stop Navy's offense and Aaron Polanco, the quarterback who's not just a devastating runner and decision-maker. That frozen moment late in the first half shows that the signal caller for the Midshipmen can quite literally pass muster in addition to running wild. If Kyle Eckel can avoid putting the ball on the turf, and stick to what he does best--making three-yard touchdown plunges such as the ones he put together in the second half to seal Navy's win--this team will deliver on its promise and potential.

Aaron Polanco was thrown into the fire, and he most certainly passed his first test... all 58 yards of it. The mood in Annapolis can't be much better after a season-opener that witnessed a substantial breakthrough, and the emergence of a quarterback who grew up a lot in a short time.


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