Navy Aces Final Exam

Navy head coach Paul Johnson worried that his team might not be able to bring its A-game to the Emerald Bowl because of grueling, long final exams before Christmas. But after taking long classroom exams, a football-style final was a piece of cake for the Johnson Boys… and just a little bit more fun as well.

Playing with pure joy and anything but pressure, the Midshipmen performed a number of amazing feats against the New Mexico Lobos in San Francisco. And as a result of their masterful 34-19 win, the 2004 Navy football team did something amazing on a much larger level: the Midshipmen won ten games in a season for only the second time in school history, and for the first time in 99 long years, since 1905.

When you consider just how well Navy played in SBC Park on the next to last day of 2004, it seems ridiculous that Johnson, the mastermind behind the program's resurgence, could have been worried about Navy's ability to prepare and play at peak efficiency. But he was.

The leader of the Midshipmen expressed concerns that the team would have a minimal amount of time to familiarize itself with the game plan, and would therefore face a challenge in adequately preparing itself for New Mexico. Johnson was unsure if his team, which looked so markedly polished against Rutgers and Army at the end of the regular season, would shake off the rust and deliver the goods on a momentous and historic occasion.

In the end, however, the coach's worries were completely unfounded, largely because of Johnson himself. In the best coaching performance of this bowl season, and one of the all-time single-game coaching clinics this writer has ever had the pleasure of witnessing, Johnson brought out the very best in Aaron Polanco and an offense that maxed out against a hopelessly confused and outwitted New Mexico defense. The list of brilliant strategic moves from Johnson's mind is long and impressive:

* Johnson came out throwing to break tendencies and get the Lobos off balance. The passing game offered open receivers and the continuous prospect of big plays throughout the game. Johnson not only took his shots with the passing game, but he did so at the right moments.

* Johnson ended the first quarter with an 11-yard power run from Kyle Eckel. While New Mexico's defense spent the between-quarter break emphasizing the need to stop the Navy run, Johnson drew up a downfield pass play. Aaron Polanco threw a picture-perfect spiral to Corey Dryden for a 61-yard touchdown.

* Johnson treated this bowl game the way any bowl game should be treated: as a postseason championship game worthy of being won with the entirety of weapons at one's disposal. While putting New Mexico's defense on a pendulum from a run-pass standpoint, Johnson also got the Lobos way off balance by ordering up trick plays at just the right time. A halfback option throwback pass to Aaron Polanco set up a touchdown early in the game, and then—as though one halfback option throwback per game isn't enough—Johnson doubled his pleasure to get a key first down late in the game on the same play. That willingness to use a gadget play a second time showed just how much fun Johnson had between the headsets on this rainy Thursday afternoon by the bay. For good measure, Navy's head coach also threw in a reverse and some other exotics to totally flummox the Lobo defense.

* When Johnson wasn't fully sure what play to call, or when New Mexico's defense showed an ability to contain Polanco, he didn't sweat bullets. He simply used one of the timeouts available to him. On two separate occasions, Johnson called a timeout to set up a specific play that, after the break, gained a first down.

* On the rare occasions when New Mexico stopped Navy's offense and forced a fourth down, Johnson used a couple more timeouts and learned something about his field goal kicker in the process. Twice, Navy called timeouts before Geoff Blumenfeld field goal attempts, and on the sloppy, soggy baseball field in San Francisco, the struggling Midshipmen placekicker needed that time to prepare. Johnson's timeouts enabled Blumenfeld, previously 3 for 10 on the season, to get his mind right and drill two short field goals that helped Navy pad its lead. If in 2005, the Midshipmen face a key field goal and can afford to use a timeout, Johnson will be able to remember this contest and act accordingly.

* Finally, and aside from his superb situational play-calling and strategizing, Johnson obviously did an incredible job of preparing his team and installing the game plan in the short time window he had. Navy's offense used everything to win this game: the Midshipmen ran and passed, used the power game and the finesse game, employed trick plays and basic plays, and scored both quickly and slowly. There was nothing Aaron Polanco didn't do at SBC Park: he ran, passed and caught; he pitched with precision and cut upfield with equal crispness; and he displayed equal parts agility, toughness and leadership, playing a spectacular game in every respect.

Long story short, when an offense can get a 61-yard thunderbolt in the first half and then drive 96 yards on 26 plays in 14:26 in the fourth quarter, it's doing something right. There was nothing Navy left undone, untried or unfulfilled on the field against New Mexico, and it was attributable to Johnson's superior preparation and flawless gameday instincts.

By doing a sensational job in his own right, Paul Johnson made sure his concerns about his team were unwarranted. Much more importantly, Johnson established a revered and lofty place for himself and his special team in the annals of Navy football history. This final exam—just like the 2004 season—was passed with flying colors. The score? Call it a perfect "10" for the biggest winner in Annapolis in a century.


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