Chiefly in Command: Navy Nears the Trophy Again

The United States Air Force Academy football team had a lot of intangibles going in its favor as the Falcons prepared to tackle Navy on the final night of September.

The Falcons had been extremely competitive against top-15 competition: Fisher DeBerry's crew played Cal tough for the first two and a half quarters a month ago, only to get jobbed by a phantom touchdown call on a play when Golden Bear running back J.J. Arrington fumbled. Just last weekend, the Air Force jumped to a 14-0 lead against nationally ranked Utah before faltering in the second half. Against Western powers, the Falcons more than held their own, losing out only because of a lack of quality depth, nothing more.

Air Force also wanted revenge for last season's 28-25 Navy win. In college football, any emotional advantage is a significant one.

The Falcons were playing at home and on national television, giving them an extra spark while posing a challenge to a Navy team that had every right to be nervous.

And all of those intangibles, folks, existed BEFORE THE GAME STARTED.

Once the affair did get underway, Navy did indeed display some serious stage fright, with Aaron Polanco and Jason Tomlinson committing turnovers in the game's first several minutes. As the game continued, the Midshipmen had to contend not with the running, but the passing of Falcon quarterback Shaun Carney, who completed 17 of his 21 passes.

So let's recap, everyone:

Navy was on the road, playing a revenge-minded opponent on national television in a high-stakes, high-pressure contest.

Furthermore, Navy committed a number of turnovers and witnessed the opposing quarterback complete 17 of 21 passes.

Knowing all these things, do you think you'd have predicted a Navy victory? No, but that's exactly what happened on an electric Thursday night in Colorado Springs. Yes, Navy won another nail-biter, 24-21, finding a way to come out on top in a hotly-contested service academy battle. For a team that doesn't blow its opponents away, the Midshipmen have been absolutely astounding in finding ways to win, and their most recent success story--which will almost certainly propel them to a second consecutive Commander-in-Chief Trophy for the first time since 1981--typifies the pure magic this team has so consistently been able to capture in 2004.

The close shaves against Duke, Northeastern and Vanderbilt were impressive enough, but Air Force was a different animal on many levels. First, the Falcons' competitiveness against elite teams posed a formidable obstacle for the Midshipmen. Secondly, appearing in a nationally-televised game placed the Midshipmen in the kind of pressure situation that often turns young men's minds into mush. A football program looking to affirm itself as a big kid on the block often stumbles in these kinds of games, before rebounding and "getting it right" in future years. But this Navy program, led by this group of Cardiac Sailors, just keeps winning right now, as it manages to turn back every challenge each week with a maturity far beyond its years.

And oh, yeah, there was also the small matter of Air Force being able to pass the ball when the Midshipmen corralled the Falcon ground game.

When you reflect on this sensational contest, you quickly realize that a lot of competitive, physical, emotional and tactical obstacles faced the Midshipmen in this game. Navy faced a situation where Air Force was much more able to get ready for the game and use the magnitude of the moment to its advantage. Despite the joyful excitment that goes with playing on ESPN, the Midshipmen would have easily been forgiven if they felt intimidated by the whole atmosphere in Colorado Springs.

But none of those things mattered, not one of them.

The early turnovers by Polanco and Tomlinson? No problem--Navy's defense made two straight stands in the red zone to keep the game 6-0 instead of 14-0, in which case the Midshipmen would have been through by halftime.

The passing of Carney for Air Force? Well, despite failing to complete just four of 21 passes, Carney was victimized by Navy's opportunistic defense, which managed to pick off two of those four errant throws.

And about the road crowd? Simply consider that Navy answered Air Force score for score down the stretch. As soon as the Falcons tied the game at 14, Navy came back with a touchdown. Air Force got off the (flight) deck to tie the game at 21, but there were the Midshipmen--led by Polanco and Eric Roberts on that last decisive drive--to get in the last word in the form of the last kick of the game, a winning boot from lacekicker Geoff Blumenfeld, who nailed a 30-yarder with four seconds left despite being iced by DeBerry and the Air Force staff. It was a remarkable accomplishment against significant odds for an emergently remarkable team.

For the first four games of the 2004 season, one easily could have gained a sense that Navy was playing down to its competition. But now, after a head-scratching but delightfully thrilling epic win over Air Force on national TV, it's increasingly clear that the Johnson Boys have something very special, something that can't be taught or memorized: an innate knowledge of how to win games. This knowledge will lead the Midshipmen to a repeat of their Commander-in-Chief Trophy title, and--in all likelihood--to an unbeaten record when Notre Dame comes a'calllin' on Oct. 16.

For that game against the Irish, the pressure against Navy will be through the roof.

Then again, the Midshipmen had a substantial amount of pressure against Air Force, and it never seemed to matter, as the Johnson Boys coolly shrugged off the weightiness of the occasion to play their best when they needed to.

Don't pinch Paul Johnson, Aaron Polanco, or anyone else associated with the Navy football team. They're so focused on achieving goal after goal, and on racking up accomplishment after accomplishment, that the pressure to succeed in this highly-anticipated season is virtually nonexistent as it washes right over their shoulders.

Thursday night against a service academy rival, that pressure washed over Polanco as he once again managed to come up with huge pass plays in key situations. It washed over Navy's red zone defense in the first 20 minutes of play. And it washed over Blumenfeld, who hadn't previously nailed a field goal all season and had to hit a game-winner with all of America watching on ESPN.

Pressure? What pressure? Navy knows how to win spotlight games on the road as well as the games against less competitive teams at home. If you think Navy just plays to the competition, it might be time to start thinking otherwise, for a special team is still undefeated, and still in command of the race for the Commander-in-Chief Trophy.


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