The two primary units rescued Navy's ineffective kicking game from a potentially disastrous performance yesterday as the Midshipmen remained unbeaten by staving off Vanderbilt, 29-26, at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.
Senior co-captains Aaron Polanco and Josh Smith were particularly instrumental in Navy's fourth straight victory in a seesaw game witnessed by 32,809, who also saw the Mids' Eric Roberts become the first in school history to eclipse 1,000 yards in both rushing and receiving.
Resilience was again the most valuable ally of the Midshipmen, who had not beaten Vanderbilt (0-3) in three previous meetings in Annapolis.
"I was definitely encouraged after the first series of defense," said Vanderbilt linebacker Otis Washington.
"I didn't think they could play with us. But they were persistent. They hit some big plays and had things go their way. I give a big thumbs up to Navy. They're gutsy."
The Midshipmen might have cracked after a nightmarish beginning to the second half with the score tied at 14.
On the first series, punter Eric Shuey ran for a first down on a fake kick, but the play was called back because of a questionable illegal-block penalty.
On fourth-and-10 from Navy's 21, Shuey darted right in an attempt to launch a rugby-style kick, but Vanderbilt's Norval McKenzie blocked the ball, which rolled out of the end zone for a safety.
"Eric kicked it right into the guy," said Navy coach Paul Johnson.
After the ensuing free kick, the Commodores drove to a 44-yard field goal by Patrick Johnson and a 19-14 advantage with slightly more than four minutes elapsed in the third period.
Being pushed around by both Vanderbilt lines and, with Kyle Eckel (only 37 yards) being held in check, the game appeared to have changed complexion.
But Navy responded with a 10-play, 74-yard touchdown drive on which Polanco's run converted a fourth-and-three situation at Vanderbilt's 45. The quarterback followed with a 34-yard pass to Roberts, who reached the Commodores' 7 with the catch to top 1,000.
Two plays later, Frank Divis took a pitch over from the 5 and Eckel bulled in for a two-point conversion to give the Mids a 22-19 lead.
Navy twice forced Vanderbilt into three-and-outs with a stubborn defense, then the offense drove 68 yards to another touchdown, Polanco dashing the final 22 yards. Geoff Blumenfeld's kick raised the edge to 10 points.
"We were beaten inside badly. They were bigger and more physical," Johnson said. "But Aaron made some great individual plays. He just stayed alive until he could make a play. I can't tell you how proud I am of him."
Polanco's 176 passing yards were a career high, and he also rushed for a game-high 84 yards.
"We did things based on how they came out against us," Polanco said. "Them playing man [defense] helped out the passing game.
"We threw the ball a little more based on the coverages. We still want to run the ball, but when you can't, you have to go to other means."
Vanderbilt wasn't through, either. A grinding 13-play, 68-yard march to the end zone climaxed by Jay Cutler's 21-yard pass to Marlon White and Patrick Johnson's kick brought the Commodores within a field goal with 2:30 remaining.
But Smith took the ensuing onside kick on a bounce to cap a day that included 15 tackles and a fumble recovery on the game's opening kickoff.
Navy had a chance to take early control, but Blumenfeld missed field-goal tries from 47 and 49 yards and Paul Johnson spent the remainder of the day either trying to punt or going for the fourth-down yardage (Navy was 4-for-4 on those conversions).
"Sooner or later, we're going to make a field goal if we kick enough," said the coach. Blumenfeld is 0-for-4 this season.
With the clock winding down and Vanderbilt holding only one timeout, the Mids finished it off with Polanco driving for a first down on a fourth-and-five situation.
"I wouldn't say 4-0 gives us confidence. We already had that," Smith said. "We just have to prove it to everybody else."
Navy hasn't started this well since winning its first six in 1979 and, for the first time in 20 years, has beaten a Southeastern Conference team (Vanderbilt) and an Atlantic Coast Conference school (Duke) in the same year.
The Mids gained only 190 rushing yards, their lowest total since last year's loss to Delaware, squandered two early scoring chances and had a punt blocked that Vanderbilt turned into five quick points. Still, they found a way to win.
"We showed a lot of character," Polanco said. "It was a tough win."
Next for Navy
Matchup: Navy (4-0) vs. Air Force (2-2)
Site: Falcon Stadium, Colorado Springs, Colo.
When: Thursday, 7:45 p.m.
TV/Radio: ESPN/WJFK (1300 AM), WNAV (1430 AM)
Yesterday: Air Force lost to Utah, 49-35
Vanderbilt 0 14 5 7 - 26
Navy 0 14 8 7 - 29
Second quarter V-Smith 8 pass from Cutler (Johnson kick), 14:19. N-Nelson 45 pass from Polanco (Blumenfeld kick), 12:00. N-Hines 2 run (Blumenfeld kick), 5:28. V-Cutler 1 run (Johnson kick), :19. Third quarter V-Safety, blocked punt out of end zone, 13:26. V-FG Johnson 44, 10:52. N-Divis 5 run (Eckel run), 6:28. Fourth quarter N-Polanco 22 run (Blumenfeld kick), 12:27. V-White 21 pass from Cutler, (Johnson kick), 2:30. A-32,809.
First downs 19 17
Rushes-yards 46-153 52-190
Passing 176 176
Comp-Att-Int 15-23-0 9-14-0
Return Yards 116 88
Punts-Avg. 4-36.8 3-22
Fumbles-Lost 4-2 1-0
Penalties-Yards 3-30 5-45
Time of Possession 30:00 30:00
Rushing-Vanderbilt, McKenzie 15-54, Doster 9-39, Jennings 7-27, Cutler 12-17, Bright 2-11, Young 1-5. Navy, Polanco 25-84, Divis 5-48, Eckel 14-37, Nelson 1-7, Roberts 4-7, Shuey 1-7, Hines 1-2, team 1-(minus 2). Passing-Vanderbilt, Cutler 15-20-0-176, Bright 0-3-0-0. Navy, Polanco 14-19-0-176. Receiving-Vanderbilt, White 3-68, Tant 3-35, Smith 3-24, Dunning 2-21, Young 2-19, McKenzie 1-5, Burns 1-4. Navy, Tomlinson 3-57, Roberts 3-58, Nelson 1-45, Dryden 1-9, Eckel 1-7.