The management of the novel coronavirus has definitely created a huge void in the college sports landscape. But that doesn’t mean we can’t come up with some fun topics to discuss. So instead of talking about the present in the Navy Sports Nation, we’ll take a look back. And the topic today is the Top 5 Navy quarterbacks in the Triple Option Era.
First, let’s define the parameters. The Triple Option Era started at Navy on December 10th, 2001. That was the day that AD Chet Gladchuk hired Paul Johnson away from Georgia Southern to resurrect the Navy Football program. True, Johnson had been the Mids’ Offensive Coordinator for two years in ’95 & ’96. They went 9-3 in his second year and beat a Cal team coached by Steve Mariucci in the Aloha Bowl. But he didn’t have full control of the program as the OC. That’s why it makes sense to use his head coach date of hire as our benchmark.
Next, we can look at the quarterback ranking criteria. Obviously, individual statistics will figure heavily into this kind of a list. There will be a discussion of overall record, rushing & passing yards, and touchdowns scored. But those stats don’t count for everything. So I’ll be sharing some other things I observed that separated these Navy quarterbacks from the rest of the pack.
There are two quarterbacks that earn an honorable mention despite not making my list. Their overall numbers might not hold up against my Top 5, but they stood out for at least one reason. So, let’s get to it.
Honorable Mention #1: Craig Candeto
Coach Johnson named Craig Candeto the starter at the beginning of the 2002 season. The team endured some pretty tough sledding as they learned the nuances of the triple option. Their record that year was 2-10, but they got the most important win of all. Candeto scored six touchdowns in a 58-12 thrashing of Army to close out the season and set the stage for strong turnaround in 2003.
During Candeto’s senior year, the Mids finished the season at 8-5. The high point was beating Air Force (28-25) and Army (34-6), which gave Navy the Commander-In-Chief Trophy for the first time since 1981. Candeto finished the season with over 1,112 yards rushing and 1,140 yards passing. He also scored 16 touchdowns to wind up with 33 for his career.
Candeto earned an honorable mention because he became the quarterback at a time when the program was at its lowest. And he delivered in a big way. The Mids took their lumps, but he grew more efficient running the offense as the season wore on. After the destruction of Army in 2002, most fans believed a turnaround was coming. The senior quarterback made sure of that. The Mids wound up posting their first winning season since 1997. The program was back on the right track, and all Navy fans have Craig Candeto to thank for that.
Honorable Mention #2: Kaipo-Noa Keheaku-Enhada
Yes, his name could be a nightmare for play-by-play announcers. But there was nothing nightmarish about the way Kaipo-Noa Keheaku-Enhada ran the triple option. His high school used a similar attack, so he came to Navy with a solid foundation. He was suddenly thrust into the starting role as a sophomore following a horrific leg injury to senior Brian Hampton. Kaipo went 4-2 the rest of the season, including a 26-14 win over Army. He was as steady as they come when running the Navy offense. He finished his career with over 1,600 yards rushing, 26 touchdowns, three wins over the Black Knights and two CinC trophies. Navy’s season looked to be in doubt after Hampton went down the game after he led the Mids to their fourth straight win over Air Force. But under Kaipo, they finished strong, while the triple option kept right on humming.
The Streak Finally Ends
That’s all great stuff, but Kaipo earned this honorable mention on the strength of one monumental accomplishment: He was the quarterback of the Navy team that ended the longest losing streak in the history of Division One Football. The Mids had lost 43 straight to Notre Dame going into the 2007 season. But that all changed on November 3rd. Kaipo did a masterful job distributing the ball. He also completed two huge passes along the way. Both went to Reggie Campbell in the third overtime. The first was a 25 yard touchdown pass. And then he came right back to Campbell for the two point conversion. Finally, an inspired Navy defense stopped the Irish cold on the two point attempt following their touchdown, and the streak was over.
The Mids had secured a 46-44 win. Just like that, 43 years of frustration was washed down the drain, and Kaipo-Noa Keheaku-Enhada became the first Navy quarterback to defeat Notre Dame since Roger Staubauch in 1963.
Okay, that does it for the Honorable Mentions. Now it’s time for our Top 5. Because I like to be thorough, I decided to cover #5 and #4 in this post and save the top three for the next one. Otherwise, you all might be here for a while. Here we go . . .
Navy’s Top 5 Triple Option Quarterbacks
#5: Aaron Polanco
When Craig Candeto graduated in 2004, Coach Johnson turned the keys of the Navy offense over to Aaron Polanco. The senior from Wimberly, TX had appeared in 16 games the previous two years in relief of Candeto. So it wasn’t like he had never been at the controls before. Polanco had proven that he was ready to be the starter based on his performance during his two years as a back up. And he did not disappoint. The Texan was known for his toughness, rushing for 980 yards and 16 touchdowns. He also threw for over 1,100 yards and 8 more TDs.
A Big Time Playmaker
Now, if you just looked at his completion percentage, it’s not likely you would be all that impressed. Polanco completed just over 53% of his passes. That’s a fairly pedestrian number. But in the triple option, the quarterback only needs to complete enough passes to keep the defense honest, and 53% is good enough to do that. What set Polanco apart was his yards per completion (18.4) and his uncanny ability to make a big play at just the right time.
One of his biggest came against Air Force. The Falcons had just tied the game at 14 early in the fourth quarter. The Mids had been completely shut down in the second half, But Polanco got them rolling again through the air. On a third and 19 from deep in their own territory, Polanco rolled to his right, looked downfield, and found Marco Nelson for a 66 yard completion. The play couldn’t have come at a better time. Five plays later, Kyle Eckel scored from three yards out to give the Mids the lead again.
After another Air Force touchdown tied the game at 21 all, Polanco led the offense back out with just over 2 minutes left in the game. This time, he broke off a huge 32 yard run to get deep into Falcon territory. That set up Geoff Blumenfeld for a 30 yard field goal. He nailed it as time expired to give the Mids their second straight win over Falcons.
Finishing In Style
Polanco continued his solid play throughout the year. Against Army, he ran for one touchdown and threw for two more in a 42-13 beat down of the Black Knights. And to finish off his college career, the Navy signal caller led the Mids to a 34-19 win over New Mexico in the Emerald Bowl. It was their first bowl win in eight years. Polanco ran for three scores and threw for another. He also engineered what is recognized as the longest drive in college football. In what can only be described as football’s version of death by a thousand cuts, the New Mexico defense was ground down by a 27 play, drive that lasted 14 minutes and 26 seconds. Navy would end the drive with a field goal to close out the scoring with barely two minutes to go in the game.
Polanco took over the Navy triple option from Craig Candeto in 2004 and it never skipped a beat. The Mids finished the year at 10-2. It was their best season in 99 years. They took home their second consecutive Commander-In-Chief trophy and won their first bowl game under Coach Johnson. Aaron Polanco had secured his legacy by taking the team to a place they hadn’t been in nearly a century. Our next quarterback took them to a place they had never been before . . .
#4: Will Worth
Will Worth saw his first significant action as Navy’s quarterback in the first game of the 2016 season against Fordham. The senior from Valrico, FL was the back up to starter Tago Smith and was an unknown quantity to just about everyone except the Navy coaching staff. Then, Smith went down in the second quarter and was lost for the year with a torn ACL. Suddenly, the offense was in the hands of a quarterback that most Navy fans had never seen take a single snap under center. I certainly didn’t know what to expect. But I was reassured after reading comments from Coach Niumatalolo and Coach Jasper. And sure enough, the team won their first three games.
Then, the Mids stumbled badly in a 28-14 loss to Air Force that wasn’t as close as the score indicated. Though they were still 3-1, they were coming home to face the #6 ranked Houston Cougars. Even the optimist in me saw little chance of Navy pulling off a win based on how the offense performed against the Falcons. The triple option had been completely shut down, and Houston wasn’t exactly the team to be dealing with when trying to figure things out. Lucky for the Navy faithful, Will Worth had other ideas. And he really came through.
Rising to the Occasion
It had been 32 years since Navy had beaten a top 10 ranked opponent. The Cougars were the defending AAC champions. Like the Mids, they were undefeated in conference play, and they came to they came to Annapolis full of confidence. The game was tied 20-20 at halftime. Then, Navy scored 21 points in the third quarter to take control. Worth ran for 115 yards and one touchdown. He also threw for two scores in leading the Mids to a 46-40 win. He played a near flawless game. The offense didn’t have a single turnover, and they were only penalized once for five yards. They also converted a Houston fumble into a touchdown to go along with a pick six by linebacker Josiah Powell.
Will Worth’s performance in the Houston game was just the beginning. He led the Mids to the AAC Western Division title with a 7-1 Conference record. And with him at the helm, the triple option put up some ridiculous numbers. The offense averaged nearly 50 points a contest over the next six games and finished 4th in the nation in rushing for the year. Worth was a hard-nosed runner who never gave an inch. He rushed for 1,198 yards, and scored 26 touchdowns while completing over 61% of his passes for 1,397 yards and 8 TDs. And by the way, he also engineered a 28-27 win over Notre Dame.
A Great Year, But A Tough Finish
Worth had taken the Mids to the AAC championship game, which was a first for the program. Navy entered the title game with an 9-2 record against Temple. Unfortunately, they came up short, losing 34-10. But the worse news for Navy fans was that Worth suffered a broken ankle in the second quarter and was lost for the remainder of the season. The Mids had been racked by injuries all year long, and it finally caught up with them. Without Worth at QB, Navy’s 14 game winning streak against Army came to an end. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that the Mids would have made it 15 straight with him in the line up.
Even though Will Worth only started 11 games in his career as a Navy quarterback, it was enough to make his mark on the program. He performed remarkably well in leading the Mids to the conference championship game in only their second year in the American Conference. And his 2,595 total yards accounted for over 42% of the offense’s productivity. So, I think it’s fair to say that Worth exceeded expectations in 2016, and he clearly earned the #4 spot on this Top 5 list.
That will do it for Part 1. Feel free to share your comments below. How do you all feel about the quarterbacks discussed so far? Let me know, and stay tuned for Part 2 in a couple of days!
Until next time . . .