Pulling Rank: Midshipmen Upend Commodores

When low-ranking Naval officers beat their superiors in any kind of competition, you know you have a good bunch of kids on your hands. Sure enough, Paul Johnson's own group of Midshipmen showed their stuff in knocking off a bunch of Commodores from Vanderbilt, proving that even against a power conference team, Navy can find ways to win.

Yes, Vanderbilt is--along with Mississippi State--an SEC doormat, but Vanderbilt's SEC identity alone has to count for more than a little. The same team that fought the Georgia Bulldogs on even terms for three quarters last Autumn posed a stiffer challenge than playing Northeastern or Tulsa.

And Navy turned those Commodores back, 29-26, to become the first 4-0 Annapolis team since 1979, in the George Welsh glory days. Once again, the script was slightly different, showing that these Midshipmen have only improved in their ability to find the magic tonic that propels great teams on their way to great seasons: knowing how to win.

Knowing how to win: it's such an intangible and often elusive quality that just doesn't come immediately. But after the hard knocks of 2002 and then the taste of winning in 2003, it's hard to look at these first four football fistfights of 2004 and not conclude that Navy, under Paul Johnson, has officially learned how to win games, come hell or high water (high water piloted by a Commodore, you might say).

Against Duke and Northeastern, sluggish first halves were followed by quick starts in the third quarter that ultimately proved decisive despite late-game episodes of relaxation. Navy would struggle, regain its footing, build a sizeable advantage, and ultimately hold on for dear life.

Against Tulsa, Navy had enough with early-game struggles or fourth-quarter letdowns, fashioning a complete and consistent performance in a 29-0 romp.

And on this past Saturday in Annapolis, Navy slammed the door against the 'Dores with a particularly resilient and gritty second half performance. It was Navy's best gut-check effort to date in what has already been a season filled with impressive responses to each and every challenge thrown the Midshipmen's way.

What made this second-half different--and the Naval Academy's victory especially satisfying--was the fact that coming out of the gate, the Midshipmen actually stumbled. Usually, Aaron Polanco and the offense came out razor-sharp at the beginning of the third quarter, proving coach Johnson's halftime adjustments and tweaks to be golden. But against Vanderbilt, Navy not only failed to score on its first possession of the second half; the Midshipmen gave up points, as the offense stalled, only for a punt to be blocked for a Commodore safety. After Vandy tacked on a field goal, due to the great field position that always comes with a post-safety free kick, Navy found itself down 19-14 and--unlike previous second halves--lacking momentum as the third quarter moved along. Navy had to find a spark in midstream, and generate momentum afresh when halftime had--for the first time in 2004--failed to serve as a rallying point for the team.

Sure enough, the Midshipmen were able to get the job done, even on a day when their usually overwhelming ground game mustered just 190 yards, well below their average of 310. Like all great football teams, Navy--flustered and frustrated for large portions of the game, and simply not operating on all cylinders--managed to bunch its yards together on touchdown drives instead of scattering its yards over several stalled drives that flourish between the 20s but bog down in the red zone. A 74-yard, 10-play drive, capped by a 5-yard Frank Divils touchdown run and supplemented with a Kyle Eckel 2-point conversion, put Navy ahead to stay, 22-19. And after showing patience on offense, Navy then managed to display some potency, as Polanco devastated the Commodores with a 22-yard run to paydirt that gave the Midshipmen a two-possession lead they would not squander.

Ultimately, the Midshipmen sputtered at times, but when Aaron Polanco and the offense got going, they closed the deal--they had to do so on a day when Navy's kicking game missed two field goals. Another way of looking at both this game and Navy's whole season is that any of the team's weaknesses, failures or lapses were eclipsed by their strengths, successes and big plays. The balance of good plays versus bad plays always manages to end up in Navy's favor, and Saturday's narrow win over Vanderbilt proved to be no exception. A team that knows how to win didn't lose its knowledge on Saturday, and that--as much as any strategic consideration--explains why Navy is four-and-oh for the first time in a quarter century.

Photo by Chris Poole of GoMidshipmen.com

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