Poise over Passion for Polanco

As the Navy football team prepares for its 105th encounter with The Long Gray Line from West Point, the Midshipmen seem to have everything going for them: the fresh memory of a 47-point run against Rutgers; the clinching of a second-straight bowl bid; an 8-2 record; and the knowledge of two runaway victories over Army in the past two seasons. On paper, it would seem there's little chance of Navy losing this game—and an outright claim to yet another Commander-in-Chief Trophy.

But as the Army-Navy classic and other college football rivalries have proven all too many times over the decades, rivalry games are never played—much less won—on paper. The Cadets might be 2-8, but they might as well be 8-2 considering the emotion they'll have as Bobby Ross gives them the Knute Rockne treatment before Saturday's fistfight in Philadelphia. Navy has to keep its eye on the ball and perform each task on each and every play with a maximum of focus and precision in order to enjoy the same lopsided results of 2002 and 2003.

But while Navy will win (or lose) this game as a team, with contributions from everyone, it's impossible to deny the fact that one Annapolis man will bear the burden far more than anyone else who will put on the blue shirt in the City of Brotherly Love on Saturday: Aaron Polanco.

Lost amidst the fact that the Midshipmen have rolled it up on the Cadets over the past two years, by a combined score of 92-18 (that's an average margin of 37 points per win if you do the simple math), is the reality that Polanco presided over neither one of those blowouts. Craig Candeto returned from injury to lead the 2002 conquest, and followed up that performance with an injury-free 2003 capped by another solid effort against the Black Knights of the Hudson.

For all that he's done over the past 10 games, and for all that he's learned in a full season of being the anointed starting signal-caller for the U.S. Naval Academy, Aaron Polanco hasn't yet had his baptism by Army cannon fire, and until you actually experience the Army-Navy game firsthand, any achievements in other circumstances can't carry over to this one moment. Polanco can't feel overconfident after the explosion against Rutgers; more specifically, he can't assume that any of the momentum generated by his offense will naturally spill into the Army game. Like any other player in a rivalry game where his team is the favorite, Polanco will need to treat this battle with the Cadets as the unique, once-in-a-lifetime creature it is. The opportunity is so big, the stakes so significant, and his place in Navy football history so large, that Polanco will want to take this game very seriously—seriously enough to avoid overconfidence, block out the hype, and save his excitement until after the Johnson Boys have polished off Army for a third straight year.

With Army's defense likely to concentrate its energies on stopping Navy fullback Kyle Eckel, it will be up to Polanco to not only run the triple option wide, but to make those snap decisions heading toward the perimeter that, over the course of the game, will make the difference between winning and losing. After struggling with the perimeter option game over the first half of the season, Polanco will want to showcase his running and decision-making ability on the edges against the Cadets. If he can establish the perimeter option attack early while mixing in a misdirection pass or two, Polanco will get Army's defense off balance, and set the stage for another Midshipmen mauling of the men from West Point.

Navy has to see this thing through on Saturday. To keep the dream of a 10-win season alive; to tie the all-time series with Army at 49-49-7; to win the Commander-in-Chief Trophy, the Midshipmen must play their cards right against Bobby Ross' motivated ballclub. Aaron Polanco holds most of those cards—if he makes smart decisions within a focused, airtight performance, Navy wins. It's simple enough conceptually.

But in the Army-Navy game, concepts don't win; performance does. There's nothing left but to execute with crisp and ruthless efficiency for Aaron Polanco and the Navy football team.

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