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Navy 42, Army 13

On this day, Mids seniors have final say

Polanco, Eckel, J. Smith make statements as play vs. Army speaks volumes

Gary Lambrecht

Sun Reporter

December 5, 2004

PHILADELPHIA

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First, quarterback Aaron Polanco rolled to his left, spun away from a would-be Army tackle and sprinted 10 yards for the game's first touchdown.

A few minutes later, fullback Kyle Eckel shed an arm tackle at the line of scrimmage, then bolted 23 yards up the middle and into the end zone. Five minutes later, safety Josh Smith leaped high to make an interception, then sprinted 67 yards untouched for the score that demoralized the Black Knights.

With that third unanswered touchdown, Navy had set the tone for its 42-13 rout at Lincoln Financial Field. And it was clear that the seniors representing the Midshipmen would have their say in a big way.

"They've seen the lowest lows and the highest highs," said Navy coach Paul Johnson, alluding to the program's turnaround after going 3-30 from 2000 to 2002. "They're the guys who made the plays today. I've just been lucky enough to coach them."

Starting with the power trio of Eckel, Smith and Polanco, the four-year players were all over the field, making things happen.

Cornerback Vaughn Kelley draped Army's best receiver, Aaron Alexander, rendering him a non-factor while breaking up two passes. Linebacker Bobby McClarin made six tackles and deflected two passes. Defensive end Babatunde Akingbemi knocked down two more.

On offense, tackles Tyson Stahl and Sam Brown and guard August Roitsch knocked Army off the ball with regularity, clearing the way for Eckel to rush for a career-high 179 yards, while earning his second consecutive MVP award.

Slotback Eric Roberts atoned for a fumble early in the third quarter by catching a 9-yard touchdown pass that put the Mids firmly in front 35-7 with 2:59 left in the quarter. Receiver Lionel Wesley stretched out to make an outstanding 37-yard grab that set up the fourth and final Navy score of the second quarter - a 12-yard touchdown pass by Polanco that gave the Mids a 28-7 halftime lead.

Smith's performance was as impressive as Eckel's, and it came one year after he watched Navy rout Army, 34-6, from his hotel room, where he was recovering from appendicitis surgery.

Yesterday, the Mids' co-captain responded with a team-high 12 tackles and one sack. And he nearly made a diving interception, before baiting Army quarterback Zac Dahman while sitting back in zone coverage.

After picking off Dahman at the Navy 33, Smith took off. Briefly, Army halfback Carlton Jones gained on him. But Smith never let him get close, while making his first interception of the year count for his first career touchdown and a 21-0 lead.

"Anytime you score on defense, it's huge. That was a great, individual play," Johnson said. "I think [Smith] flashed back to his earlier days back in Indiana [at Attica High] as a running back. They weren't going to catch him."

"I looked up at the JumboTron and I saw [Jones]. I knew he was fast," said Smith, who relished being on the field after last year's medical emergency denied him the chance. "That's what hurt the worst about last year, watching all my buddies celebrating."

Eckel put the finishing touch on a punishing stretch against Army. In his last two games, he has carried 55 times for 341 yards. In six combined outings against Army and Air Force, Eckel has averaged 119 rushing yards.

By rushing for one touchdown and throwing for 100 yards and two more, Polanco validated his co-captain status once more in his first year as a starter.

"It's one thing to know the offense. [But] you can only learn so much in the meeting room," Polanco said. "As a quarterback, you can't be too pumped up. You've got to have a cool head and make your reads."