SAN FRANCISCO - An extraordinary group of 36 seniors departed with a glorious finish yesterday when Navy thoroughly dominated the second half and defeated New Mexico, 34-19, in the third Emerald Bowl at soggy SBC Park.
The result enabled the Midshipmen (10-2) to equal a 99-year-old school record for victories and applied an exclamation point to one of the greatest seasons in academy history.
Navy shut out the Lobos in the second half, first with a gritty goal-line stand completed when defensive back Vaughn Kelley, the most valuable defensive player of the game, forced tailback D.D. Cox out of bounds at the 1 on fourth down.
Then, with a 31-19 lead, the Mids launched an awesome 26-play, 94-yard drive that consumed nearly a fourth of the game time (14:26) and ended with Geoff Blumenfeld kicking a 22-yard field goal with 2:15 remaining.
"The drive to eat up the fourth quarter was huge," said Navy coach Paul Johnson. "That was a great way to play defense [keep the ball]. But I told the guys I was a little disappointed that we only got three points."
"It was just incredible. I've never seen a 14 1/2 -minute drive," said Johnson's quarterback, Aaron Polanco, the offensive MVP. "The linemen did a great job up front. We made every first down by inches."
Against a New Mexico defense that ranked eighth nationally against the rush and allowed an average of less than a yard per carry its final four games, Navy ran for 269 yards and passed for 124, the vast majority of it with Polanco in the middle of the action.
He threw a 61-yard scoring pass to Corey Dryden, rushed 26 times for 136 yards and three touchdowns, and even led the team with two receptions, both coming from slotback Frank Divis on throwback plays.
Fullback Kyle Eckel ground out 85 yards on 24 carries, and wide receiver Jason Tomlinson gained 31 yards on a reverse as Johnson reached into his gimmick bag several times to counteract the Lobos' aggression on defense.
New Mexico (7-5) settled for a disappointing ending again, its third straight bowl defeat. The Lobos suffered a crushing blow on their second possession when tailback DonTrell Moore was upended by a spectacular Kelley tackle, causing a fumble recovered by the Mids' Lane Jackson.
Moore left the game with a left knee injury and never returned. "I was really going for the ball," Kelley said. "I hit him about hip high with my shoulder pad."
Even without Moore, the Lobos hung in the game for a half on the scrambling ability and passing of quarterback Kole McKamey, who completed six of seven passes for 54 yards and a touchdown to Logan Hall on the game's opening possession.
Navy responded quickly with Polanco hitting Eric Roberts on a 35-yard pass to set up his 14-yard touchdown run. After Kelley's hit on Moore and subsequent Lobos turnover, a 23-yard drive capped by Polanco's run from the 1 gave Navy a 14-7 lead before an interception by Josh Smith set up the Polanco-to-Dryden long-distance score early in the second quarter.
Navy's first bowl win since 1996 was a tribute to the seniors, said third-year coach Johnson, whose Mids went 1-20 in the two years before he arrived. "They've seen the bottom of the barrel and now found success," he said. "Anytime you can see hard work rewarded, it makes your job worthwhile."
Although Lobos offensive tackle Claude Terrell had said beforehand that the team wouldn't deviate "from its M.O.," which is smash-mouth football, New Mexico threw the ball liberally in the first half. McKamey was directly involved in 28 of the 45 plays and almost singlehandedly made a game of it.
But with rainfall increasing after intermission and slippery footing preventing quick cuts, Navy's option attack took command. After an exchange of punts to launch the half, the Midshipmen unleashed a nine-play, 75-yard touchdown drive capped by Polanco's 27-yard dash to extend a five-point lead to 31-19.
The Lobos answered with a march to a first down at the Navy 6 before Cox and Rodney Ferguson were denied four times by the Mids' defense, with Kelley and helper Bobby McClarin (career-high 17 tackles) applying the finishing touch.
What followed was the clock-eating possession that ended all hope for the Lobos.
"I got in that huddle and told our linemen we needed a first down no matter what," Polanco said of that final thrust. "You could tell they were getting tired, but so was the defense. Everybody was tired. But we got it done."