Swezey: Navy QB development key against UConn

Saturday's game reminds me of the last time the Mids faced UConn, in 2002. Starting in early October that year there had been a clamoring for Paul Johnson to play Aaron Polanco, then a sophomore, at quarterback. Polanco had a good stint in the second half against Boston College; it was a 46-21 loss, but it was 46-7 when Polanco entered the game and engineered two touchdown drives.

Afterward, Johnson was rather nonplussed by Polanco's play.

"You guys saw the touchdowns, but the fumble you thought was on the fullback was actually Aaron's fault on the mesh," Johnson said. "And you missed the option play where he went one way and the rest of the team went the other--and they were right. Aaron had run the wrong way."

Most people remember what happened a few weeks later. Craig Candeto injured his ankle in the first series against Notre Dame. Polanco came in and nearly engineered one of the great upsets in Navy history. (Its biggest competition for that title, I think, would have been the South Carolina win in '84 and the Army win in '50, probably in reverse order.)

The following week, against UConn, Polanco was given a much-anticipated start (or at least it was much-anticipated by me).

Navy's deepest penetration that day was the U-Conn. 38 yard line. The Midshipmen trailed 31-0 at halftime. The final was 38-0. Navy completed 3 of 11 passes.

Candeto got healthy and came back the following week. He was the starter for the rest of the year and the following one.

It seems that under Johnson, each of his quarterbacks has taken one step forward in the opener, then one step back in the second or third game, and then they pretty much put it on cruise control and had the offense rocking.

Candeto's step forward in 2003 was leading the opening win over VMI. His step back came against Texas Christian in the second game. Candeto fumbled a snap on a field goal attempt and later was sacked on a third-and-three in the crucial first half. Navy had the ball for more than 20 minutes but managed just a field goal in the half. It lost, 17-3.

Candeto followed that performance, however, by leading the Mids to a 39-7 win over Eastern Michigan. After that, the offense put up some impressive numbers almost every week.

Polanco's step forward was an opening win over Duke. His step backward in 2004 was the interception he threw on the opening play against Northeastern in the second game. Navy struggled to win that game--but followed it with a 29-0 victory over Tulsa en route to a 6-0 start.

Last year, Lamar Owens nearly led an impressive upset of Maryland. Navy's chances took a huge hit when Owens left with cramps. His step back was again being sidelined by cramps against Stanford. Once he got sorted out, however, Navy won four straight and scored 27 or more points in each game.

That brings us to Brian Hampton. He had a step forward--a tough performance against a very good ECU defense--followed by a step back against UMass. Then the Stanford game was a huge step forward.

When it looked like the offense had its rhythm back, it took what I can only believe was a step backward against Tulsa last week.

Thus far, Navy has one play of more than 30 yards. It has had at least nine plays of 30 yards or more after four games in each of the past four seasons.

The inability to complete long passes have hurt the offense's ability to open things up for the running game and to score in a hurry and get more possessions in the NCAA-mandated shorter games (and also give the line and Ballard a breather).

In my opinion, Navy can't live with step forward-step back-step forward-step back play from the quarterback. It may be a moot point; Hampton clearly has it in him to play lights out against UConn, and beyond.

To a certain extent, however, this is uncharted territory for Navy's offense under Johnson, at least in the last four years. All of his quarterbacks have responded to the problems in the second game with several strong performances.

Hampton has since taken another step back. We will all be watching to see how he responds--and how Johnson does, too.


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