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The longest drive ever: weird calls, trickery, and a refusal to ever stop playing

The inside story of the longest drive on record in college football or the NFL, as told by five key participants.

Original image: Phil Hoffmann, Naval Academy Athletic Association

In clock time, it took 14:26, almost wiping out the entire fourth quarter of the 2004 Emerald Bowl. In real time, it took 31:30 from the first snap to the end. It officially included 26 plays, thought it had even more snaps than that.

It’s the longest drive on record in either college football or the NFL. The CFL and most other leagues don’t track this record. If some high school team in 1973 topped this drive, we’ve been unable to find it.

The NCAA didn’t track drive length in its record books until 2005. It doesn’t denote a record-holder for FCS, Division II, or Division III. But it’s decided the longest drive in FBS history — apparently by both drive length and time of possession — was the one Navy put on New Mexico in this otherwise forgettable bowl.

In one key way, the drive maybe never should’ve happened. But it became a historic display of ball control, with twists all throughout, as seniors battled to end their football careers with one last touchdown.

Banner Society talked with three of Navy’s key players on the drive and two coaches, aiming to answer this question: How the hell did that happen?

Navy started at its own 1-yard line with 1:41 left in the third quarter, leading 31-19. Arguably, Navy never should’ve started that far back.

Play 1: first-and-10 at Navy’s 1

The first thing required for a long drive is a long field. This drive made it into the history books as an offensive achievement, but Navy’s defense got it started. Because on fourth-and-goal at the Navy 1, with Navy up 31-19 late in the third quarter, the Lobos went for it, and the Midshipmen stopped them — maybe.

D.D. Cox might have scored. But officials ruled him down inside the 1, and there was no instant replay in 2004, so the Mids got the ball with about 99.5 yards to go.

Quarterback Aaron Polanco started for Navy by barreling ahead two yards.

Navy started with a bunch of runs straight back into the line. All were short, except for one that went for a massive 8 yards.

Play 2: second-and-8 at Navy’s 3
Play 3: third-and-5 at Navy’s 6
Play 4: first-and-10 at Navy’s 11
Play 5: second-and-2 at Navy’s 19
Play 6: first-and-10 at Navy’s 23
Play 7: second-and-6 at Navy’s 27
Play 8: third-and-1 at Navy’s 32

Navy doesn’t like to throw, period. But on this drive, the Midshipmen were especially plodding. Part of it was the conditions at SBC Park.

“It was a slopfest out there,” fullback Kyle Eckel says.

“It was just a sloppy day overall,” Polanco says. “There was a lot of sliding in water puddles and everything else throughout the drive. In the end, that probably helps us more than the defense.”

“We knew where we were going, and the defense had to try to keep up with us,” slotback Frank Divis says.

“We have that slight advantage in poor field conditions,” says Polanco. “I think anybody would rather have it sunny and 80 and perfect conditions and grass and everything else, but it’s definitely something that I think we all remembered. I don’t think anyone walked away with a clean uniform.”

Eventually, Navy coach Paul Johnson called a pass.

Play 9: first-and-10 at Navy’s 34

This was the first throw of the drive, a Polanco heave into double coverage that fell incomplete, deep over the middle.

Officials, for some reason, gave New Mexico a sideline warning.

Then, a questionable penalty call against Navy made the drive even longer.

Play 10: second-and-10 at Navy’s 34
Play 10b: second-and-15 at Navy’s 29

A drive of this length can’t happen if the offense has any big plays. So Eric Roberts’ 11-yard gain on a pitch put Navy’s eventual record in peril. Unfortunately for Navy — but fortunately for history — the Mids got tagged for an illegal shift. The refs said two men were in motion before the snap. Maybe they were. It’s really, really close:

The nature of the flexbone, especially on counter runs like this one, makes Navy susceptible to shift penalties. One slotback goes in motion right before the snap, which puts a microscope on the other slotback, who’s about to get going.

“Sometimes that can happen, especially if they have no experience watching us play,” Ivin Jasper, then the QB coach and now the offensive coordinator, says. “There’s some counter plays that we have where, if you just look, you would think both guys are in motion, but really, one guy should be going earlier.”

This call wiped out Roberts’ unseemly 11-yard run. Instead, it became second-and-15, and Polanco got nine on a QB keeper to bring up third-and-medium.

The drive almost ended here.

Play 11: third-and-6 at Navy’s 38

Navy was in a passing down, and Polanco threw to his right, just at the sticks, to Marco Nelson. You tell me if it was a catch or not:

Again, there was no video review in 2004. Had they ruled the pass incomplete, Navy would’ve punted after an 11-play, 4:42 drive.

“Marco was a kid that had to really, really earn it,” Jasper says. “He was a guy that when [current Army coach Jeff] Monken was here, he coached the slotbacks. I remember Jeff was always really, really high on Marco. ‘He’s a good player. I know he’s not big, but the kid makes plays. He can catch the football.’ But Johnson wasn’t too fired up about it.

“But the kid just stayed positive, and when he got his opportunities, he stepped up and made big plays for us.”

Things then got really weird, with officials giving Navy an odd spot for a first down. Nobody knows exactly what happened, all these years later.

Play 12: first-and-10 at Navy’s 44
Play 13: second-and-3 at UNM’s 49

Eckel ran 2 yards to the UNM 47, clearly a yard short of the first down. A few seconds later, officials give Navy a first down, moving the ball up to about the 45.5. Neither the broadcast nor play-by-play log made clear what happened, and no one I talked to recalled what exactly went down. But Navy now had a first down inside Lobo territory.

This is how drunk the play-by-play logs still are:

Maybe it was karmic.

“Navy football is no stranger to getting a bad spot here or there,” Eckel says.

Eckel, one of the drive’s busiest players, was getting gassed.

Play 14: first-and-10 at UNM’s 46
Play 15: second-and-6 at UNM’s 42

“At what point did I feel it?” the fullback says when I ask. “About halfway through, I took a knee behind the ball.

“Now, we run the triple option, so my position, when I don’t get the ball, that’s when I’m getting tackled. So that’s kind of, I don’t get the ball, the quarterback makes the read, I get tackled, the quarterback keeps the ball. So really every play, I hit the ground, but this is about halfway through, right at midfield.

“I took a knee and looked up at the sideline, and everybody on the sideline was almost in a panic to see if I wanted to come off the field or not, and I wondered, ‘Why would I wanna come off the field, and what’s the big deal?’ When the game was over, having watched the film, is when I put two and two together: ‘Oh, we were about 15 plays in at that point.’”

At this point, the drive was seven minutes old in clock time and 16 old in real time. It had been 9:45 since the last commercial break.

Navy was getting exactly the yardage it needed, and not anything more.

Play 16: third-and-5 at UNM’s 41

“It was almost like we had to go to third down,” then-offensive line coach and current head coach Ken Niumatalolo says. “First down, we’d get a couple yards. Second down, we’d get a couple yards. And maybe third down, it’d be third and medium, and we would just get it, or it’d become fourth-and-1, and we’d go for it. It wasn’t obviously a very spectacular drive when you looked at it, just from the standpoint of, obviously, there weren’t any big plays.”

On this third down, needing 5 yards, Navy picked up 6.

Play 17: first-and-10 at UNM’s 35
Play 18: second-and-9 at UNM’s 34
Play 19: third-and-4 at UNM’s 29

Three runs on these plays got Navy a combined 7 yards.

Part of why the Midshipmen weren’t moving quickly: New Mexico’s front was used to facing triple-option teams.

The Lobos faced Air Force every year in the Mountain West. Their head coach, Rocky Long, was a former option QB.

“He knows the option. He’s very versed in it,” Niumatalolo says. “We struggle against a lot of people, so to say that we don’t struggle against non-option guys isn’t true, but we have a harder time going against Air Force and Army, just because they see it all the time.”

Navy went for it on fourth down. The drive took its most fascinating turn, in the form of an audacious trick play.

Play 20: fourth-and-3 at UNM’s 28

All afternoon, Navy had noticed something about how New Mexico guarded against a potential QB bootleg to the back side.

A primary teaching point in the flexbone is for players who don’t have the ball to carry out their fakes anyway. For the QB, that means looping out to the perimeter after handing the ball off to a slotback or fullback. It’s supposed to force the defense to cover areas where the ball isn’t actually going. Polanco had been doing that his whole career, including from the opening snaps of this game.

Sometimes, Navy would see a Lobo waiting in the flat for the QB to peel off. Other times, it wouldn’t.

“Any kind of trick play, like a reverse or anything like that, you wanna make sure that guys have their eyes in the right spot looking for certain guys who can defend the play,” Jasper says, “but if they’re not staying home, if their eyes are bad because they’re looking in the wrong spot where they shouldn’t be looking — as far as we’re thinking on offense, if they’re not in the right spot — then the play’s been set up. They’re taking the bait. Now’s time to call it.”

On a scoring drive late in the first quarter, the Mids dialed up a play they’d worked on in practice — a triple-option version of something the Eagles would make famous in a Super Bowl 13 years later. Divis took the ball from Polanco and went right, and the QB snuck free to the left, where defenders had been ignoring him.

Wait, why am I showing you a play from the first quarter?

Because on this pivotal fourth-and-3 later on in the longest drive ever, NAVY CALLED THE SAME DAMN PLAY.

The Midshipmen kept noticing New Mexico lacking “any kind of guy that should stay home to play the reverse, to play the cutback,” Jasper says. “Most defenses have guys sitting back there to stay at home.”

New Mexico still had nobody, save for a cornerback who was playing soft coverage and getting run out of the frame by a Navy receiver.

“I remember Coach Johnson at the time kind of gave me a hard time, because in practice, just about the same thing happened, where we completed the ball,” Divis says, “but it was only for about 5 or 6 yards. A lot of times, you see those halfback passes and you’re ripping off a big play.”

A 6-yard pass by a slotback is extremely Navy.

Watching the full drive, it’s hard not to feel bad for New Mexico defenders. But the defense looked even more tired from the field.

Play 21: first-and-10 at UNM’s 22
Play 22: second-and-8 at UNM’s 20

The Lobos were playing fine. But as Navy pounded ahead with the run, fatigue set in.

“You could see it on faces, but you could actually hear it,” Eckel says. “You could actually hear their exhaustion. With every hit and every collision, you could hear the air coming out of them.

“What sticks in my mind was just the sound of exhaustion coming out of every gasp from the defense. Every time there was a collision, you could actually hear the moans, and you could hear the kind of mumbling and kind of complaining to each other about what’s going on, and ‘can I get a stop?’ and after a while, it’s less words. It’s more just sounds and noises.”

It probably helped Navy that its offensive line was a bit lighter and more nimble than most. (Remember, all midshipmen at the Academy have to pass a fitness test.) It definitely helped that Navy’s linemen were used to running on every play.

“Because of the nature of what we do on offense and how we practice, offensive linemen are always coming off the ball and they’re running,” Niumatalolo says. “It’s not like you’re pass-setting and going backwards a couple steps. And you’re always running forward, so maybe our guys are in better running shape.”

True story: Navy broke a football drive record in the Giants’ ballpark before Barry Bonds broke baseball’s home run record there.

Play 23: third-and-4 at UNM’s 16

Hank Aaron’s 755 homers were still a record at this point, with Babe Ruth next at 714.

ESPN’s cameras reminded viewers that Bonds, who played in this stadium whose layout forced football teams to share a sideline, hadn’t caught Babe Ruth or Hank Aaron yet.

“This drive has been something to write home about. This drive has been absolutely mind-blowing,” play-by-play man Eric Collins said coming out of a commercial break.

Divis ran for 8 yards.

The Mids had little concept of how long they’d been out there.

“Obviously, during the game, you really don’t really know,” Jasper says.

When did they know?

“It had to have been after the game, to be honest,” Polanco says. “Talking to family and everything else, they knew we were out there for a long time, but yeah, I think it would’ve been — I don’t remember how long after, but somebody had mentioned that whenever they started keeping the stat, this was definitely the longest one, total time, for college football, which was pretty cool.

“In one sense, we all probably, when we hear about long drives and they talk about it on SportsCenter or whatever they’re on, they say how long it was, and you’re like, ‘OK, that’s pretty long.’ But it’s not as long as it was for our drive.”

On play after play, most of Navy’s seniors on offense were extending their final moment as football players.

Play 24: first-and-goal at UNM’s 8
Play 25: second-and-goal at UNM’s 3

Eckel played in the NFL until 2010 and won a Super Bowl with the Saints. But most went into the service right after their graduation the next spring.

“I think for all the seniors specifically, we all knew that, with the exception of Kyle, we pretty much knew that was it for us, right?” Polanco says. “So a couple of the guys maybe get a shot to go to some camps or something like that, but 99.9 percent, that was it. You obviously wanna keep elongating those last minutes.”

Eckel ran 5 yards on first down, but then Roberts lost a yard on second down.

The Mids took one last shot at punching the ball in, with Eckel.

Play 26: third-and-goal at UNM’s 4

He got stacked up.

After that stop, New Mexico called timeout with 2:18 left. Johnson had two choices:

  • Go for it from the 4
  • Kick a field goal and go up 15 with just more than two minutes left.

He chose the latter.

Geoff Blumenfeld kicked a 22-yard field goal, ending the longest drive in history with 3 points instead of 7.

“That was probably the most demoralizing part,” Polanco says.

“Yeah, I mean, that was pretty anticlimactic,” Niumatalolo says.

“That was … that was like, uh, you know. It’s … ugh,” Jasper says.

(The NCAA doesn’t count scrimmage kicks toward drive length. That’s why this goes down as a 27-play drive and not a 28-play drive.)

The kicker was excited, though:

The drive lasted so long, Navy’s offense almost forced seniors on Navy’s defense to end their college careers back in the third quarter.

Eckel insists that a few offensive players were rooting for UNM to get a stop, if that’s what it took for Navy’s defenders to take the field one last time.

But the defense did get back out there, just barely. It held New Mexico to 29 yards over six plays, and then the clock expired. Final score: Navy 34, New Mexico 19.

“For a lot of guys, this is how we were introduced to the Naval Academy,” Eckel says.

“We weren’t introduced through the military side of it. We were introduced through football and then learned the military thing when we get there. So the football thing holds a very special place in our heart there, and it being the last game, I think none of us wanted to come off the field. I know the defense wanted to get on the field.”