SAN FRANCISCO - The Navy football program has taken another giant step forward and begins the New Year with even loftier ambitions.
After beating Mountain West Conference runner-up New Mexico in the Emerald Bowl on Thursday, the Midshipmen could scale another height when the final collegiate polls are released - denting the national Top 25.
Navy, which finished with a school record-tying 10 wins in 12 games, has not been ranked so highly since October 1979, when it rose as high as 17th.
One of coach Paul Johnson's major concerns before the season was how his third Navy team would respond after the success of 2003, when it regained the Commander in Chief's Trophy from Air Force and made the bowl lineup for the first time in seven years.
Not to worry. His corps of dedicated seniors remained hungry, focused and determined to exceed those achievements. They did, adding a 34-19 bowl victory to their resume to conclude their academy careers as one of the most memorable classes in the history of the sport.
"I think they'll go down in the annals as one of the very special Navy teams," Johnson said. "They experienced the lowest of the lows [0-10 as plebes] and now they're experiencing some highs."
"Most of us have been together five years, coming from NAPS [Naval Academy Prep School]," added cornerback Vaughn Kelley, the defensive MVP of the Emerald Bowl. "We always said to each other that we had to change something and we did. It's been 99 years since Navy won 10 games and none of us was even born then, not even the coaches."
With Johnson's high-powered spread option offense and a resolute defense guided by coordinator Buddy Green, the Midshipmen really slipped only once all season - in a 42-10 blowout loss at Tulane. They were flat and lacking emotion in that ninth game, but completely regrouped thereafter, outscoring Rutgers, Army and New Mexico by 130-53 with three of the opposing touchdowns coming when the outcomes had been long decided.
Half of the 44 members of the two-deep offensive and defensive units were seniors, including 16 starters. They were determined to provide a final imprint from San Francisco, leaving a long-awaited win over Notre Dame the only preseason goal they did not obtain.
"Last year we were just happy to make it to a bowl," Kelley said. "Our goal this year was to win it, go to the dance and do something. We wanted to change the Naval Academy atmosphere."
As had been the case all season, the Midshipmen faced an adversary much bigger than themselves. But their will almost always prevailed. Only in the 27-9 loss to a highly motivated Notre Dame team that took them very seriously were they outclassed.
"This is a dream come true," offensive lineman August Roitsch said of the season.
Individually, quarterback Aaron Polanco proved more than worthy as the successor to Craig Candeto, drawing kudos from his toughest critic, Johnson, for his ability to read defenses, run elusively and lead the team. Bulldozing fullback Kyle Eckel finished as the fourth-leading rusher in school history. Slotback Eric Roberts' numbers dropped, but that was primarily because a slew of his running mates shared the wealth.
On defense, undersized linebackers Lane Jackson and Bobby McClarin were sensational all fall, and co-captain Josh Smith led the squad in tackles for the third straight time, only the second Midshipman ever to accomplish that.
The most underrated group had to be the three-man defensive line, anchored by nose guard Babatunde Akingbemi. They had to sacrifice 40 to 50 pounds to their opponents weekly and created so much disruption that the linebackers and Smith roamed all around the field to make stops.
Roberts' attitude was typical of the team-first concept. Although his offensive numbers declined by more than 20 percent from 2003, he said, "Even if I had to block the whole game, I was still happy. The whole goal is to win."
"Except for not beating Notre Dame, we couldn't have drawn this season up any better," Smith said.
The realization that it was over hit immediately after the heady victory. "It's started to sink in that this is the last time we're going to be together," said Polanco, who led the nation's quarterbacks with 16 rushing touchdowns. "Our time is over and we'll just be hanging around being bums."
Bums is hardly an apt description for players who regained respect for Navy football.
"It's pretty amazing what we've done," Eckel said. "It's a big deal and a testament to the character of the guys who put in all the time to get to where we are."