College Football's Longest Drive - Five Years Ago, Navy Reached the Record Books, If a Bit Quietly, With an Epic March

Bob Haines sent in this story from the Wall Street Journal


The Navy Midshipmen take to the field Thursday in the Texas Bowl against Missouri. The game isn't a factor in deciding a BCS champion, nor was the game Navy played five years ago, the Emerald Bowl of 2004. That matchup, a 34-19 Navy win over the New Mexico Lobos, was played before fewer than 29,000 fans on a rainy day in San Francisco's SBC Park.

Navy quarterback Aaron Polanco jumps over a New Mexico defender during the Middies' epic second-half drive in the 2004 Emerald Bowl, in San Francisco.
Ask even a diehard college-football fan what was memorable about that Dec. 30, 2004, game, and they'd have a hard time coming up with anything. But that game is indeed in the record books, because of a Navy drive that could have been measured by an hourglass: a 26-play, 14 minute-26 second epic that took just over 32 minutes in real time. It was college football's most time-consuming drive ever, and it didn't even produce a touchdown—on the drive's last play, Navy kicked a field goal to go up by 15. The drive started with 1:41 left in the third quarter with Navy leading 31-19 and having just thwarted a New Mexico touchdown plunge by inches. When the drive was over, just 2:15 was left in the game, and the Lobos' fate was all but sealed.
Great marches down the field are the stuff of football lore. There's The Drive, John Elway's signature 98-yard trudge at the old Municipal Stadium in Cleveland in the 1987 AFC Championship game against the Browns. The Joe Montana-led 92-yard drive to beat the Bengals in Super Bowl XXIII stands as the Super Bowl standard for longevity in the clutch. In college, a record for the longest drive was only deemed worthy of the official NCAA record book after the Emerald Bowl drive. Every record has a first entry, and on the back of the Navy drive, "Longest Drive in a Game" wedged its way into the 2005 NCAA Division I FBS record book for the first time. There hasn't been a longer drive in the NFL, by either number of plays or by time elapsed, in at least the past 15 years.

"It was pretty frustrating sitting there watching the game tick by, getting stiff, getting cold," New Mexico quarterback Kole McKamey said afterwards. "I was pretty amazed. I've never heard of that before. I've never seen that before."

SBC Park, now AT&T Park, was hosting its third Emerald Bowl. The baseball home of the Giants had played only occasional host to football games, and its dimensions provided for some quirks: The end zone in left field was equal parts grass and warning track, and the outfield wall loomed menacingly close to the backline. The right-field wall did little to shield December's wind gusts off the bay.

The Middies, who entered the game as slight underdogs at 9-2, were powered that season by Coach Paul Johnson's triple-option offense. Senior quarterback Aaron Polanco led an attack that was built around 1,000+ bruising yards from fullback Kyle Eckel, also a senior. Navy got off to a quick start that afternoon after spotting the 7-4 Lobos an early touchdown. Two Polanco TD runs and a 61-yard pass to wide receiver Corey Dryden led to a 21-7 Navy lead barely a quarter into the game.
The Lobos, led by double-threat Mr. McKamey, the sophomore QB, had their own 1,000 yard rusher in junior DonTrell Moore, and the team answered back to make the game a contest. Mr. McKamey hit Hank Baskett, a 6'4" junior wide receiver now with the Indianapolis Colts, on a 53-yard gainer to aid a second Lobos TD drive. A Navy field goal was followed by a McKamey touchdown run, and the halftime score stood at 24-19, Navy.

Mr. Polanco tallied his third rushing TD in the third, this one a 27-yard jaunt into the muddy left-field end zone. The Lobos needed to once again keep pace. Mr. McKamey, the New Mexico QB, again led the way downfield, breaking loose for a 30-yard scamper to the Navy six-yard line. With first-and-goal from the 6, the Mids' defense stiffened, and on fourth-and-goal from the 1 pushed Lobos senior tailback D.D. Cox out of bounds at the one-foot mark.

In these tight quarters the Navy offense was forced to set up shop.
As the Midshipmen trotted out onto the sloppy field under darkening skies, they were faced with the daunting task of simply getting away from their end zone without yielding a safety. "We were so far back our huddle was nearly out of the end zone, and they were one of the top rushing defenses in the country; they were athletic guys," says Navy left tackle Tyson Stahl, now a Marine 1st Lieutenant at North Carolina's Camp Lejeune. "We were just pounding it to get us on a good position on the field where we could start to do our thing."

After a couple rushing plays, the Middies faced third-and-five from their 6. Mr. Polanco dropped back and overthrew senior slotback Frank Divis. The drive had stalled out all of five yards and 74 seconds in. But an offside penalty on the Lobos got the Mids just the distance they needed to continue.

Methodically, the Mids moved down the field, and after 12 plays (14 including penalties) and more than six minutes, they broke the midfield stripe. Fatigue wore on both the Lobos and the crew of ESPN, which was televising the game. Following an Eckel dive for a first-down, ESPN failed to move the computer-generated first down marker, and it appeared to the TV viewer that Navy was awarded a first-and-one. The Lobos began to roll off the Navy ball carriers more slowly, extending the time to place the ball to set and restart the play clock.

In a precisely executed play that epitomized the drive by gaining just enough to keep it alive, Mr. Polanco ran an option left on third-and-five on the New Mexico 41. Three Lobos tacklers closed inside toward Mr. Eckel. Mr. Stahl, the left tackle, after calling out the defensive formation to his side, kicked out on defensive end Evroy Thompson. Slotbacks Marco Nelson and Eric Roberts closed inside Mr. Stahl, blocking down on standout linebacker and future NFL-er Nick Speegle. Mr. Polanco found the gap and six yards for a first down.

On fourth-and-three at the Lobos' 28, Mr. Polanco pitched to Mr. Divis, who'd gone in motion left to right. Mr. Divis took several strides and tossed back across the field to Mr. Polanco who'd drifted left past the New Mexico defenders and was open four yards upfield. By the drive's standards it was a big gainer at six yards, and it was the second time the Mids ran the play successfully that day. "We had practiced it all year long and I swear every time we did it I would trip or the ball would hit me in the face or bounce right off my hands," says Mr. Polanco, now a captain with the Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 367 in Camp Bastion, Afghanistan. "So we always had it in the aresenal, just never ran it."
As the drive wore on, the Navy sideline, at least parts of it, got restless. "Our defense was starting to get mad at us," says Mr. Eckel, the fullback. "For a lot of the seniors it was their last time playing football and here we were spending the whole time on the field."

ESPN's Eric Collins, who was doing play-by-play, and broadcast partner Andre Ware increasingly sensed that history was being made. By play 23, Mr. Collins said, "the producer and statistician were scrambling for the record and we just couldn't come up with anything."

Navy's march ultimately ended on fourth-and-goal at New Mexico's 5-yard-line. Kicker Geoff Blumenfeld trotted out with only 22 yards between him and the goalpost, but with the weight of a 14-minute drive on his shoulders. The snap, the hold, and three more seconds ran off the clock as the kick sailed through and Navy closed in on its first 10-win season in 99 years. Time was left for just seven more plays from scrimmage before the game, and the drive, were in the books.

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