PHILADELPHIA — Despite the Midshipmen’s decade of dominance over the Black Knights, Navy’s come-from-behind, 17-13 victory in the 113th Army-Navy game might have surprised some.
It shouldn’t have.
Navy’s season had comprised a series of tough training exercises, on fields in Ireland, State College, Pa. and Colorado Springs. When pushed to the limit by their most intense rival on Saturday at Lincoln Financial Field, the Midshipmen possessed the resilience to get the job done.
“To me that game is indicative of our season,” Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo said. “Things didn’t start off so good in Dublin (50-10 loss to Notre Dame in the opener). Things didn’t go too good in Happy Valley either (34-7 loss at Penn State). And our guys just continued to fight.”
Trailing 13-10, Navy took possession on its own 20-yard line with 6:57 remaining in the game after Army kicker Eric Osteen missed a 37-yard field goal.
It was the first time Army led so late against Navy since 2001, the year of its last victory in the historic series. The Black Knights still had a chance to end 10 years of frustration and win the Commander In Chief’s Trophy, awarded to the service academy with the best head-to-head record, for the first time since the Clinton administration (1996).
It was not to be.
Once again, a Midshipman rose to the challenge and left the Black Knights wondering, “what if.”
Freshman quarterback Keenan Reynolds, who was voted the game’s MVP, led Navy on a seven-play, 80-yard drive that featured a 49-yard pass to senior wide receiver Brandon Turner and culminated in an 8-yard keeper.
Just like that, Navy had flipped the script.
There was time for Army to write a dramatic ending of its own. Senior quarterback Trent Steelman, the first Black Knight’s quarterback to make four starts against Navy, led the triple-option attack methodically downfield, even getting a couple of rare passes into the mix. Twelve plays later, the Black Knights had a first and 10 at the Navy 14.
In an instant, fates were sealed. Steelman and fullback Larry Dixon botched a handoff, and Navy’s Barry Dabney pounced on the fumble before Steelman could get to it. Although Navy had to snap the ball three more times to run the final 1:04 off the clock, Dabney’s quick recovery essentially secured an 11th straight victory against Army and Navy’s first CIC since 2009.
“It’s just unfortunate,” Steelman said. “I don’t know how else to put it. I feel like we deserved that game in every way possible, but it just didn’t happen. We were wearing them down and there was nothing that was going to stop us, but that’s life. Things don’t go your way sometimes. You’ve just got to be able to turn around.”
Reynolds, like Army-Navy MVPs before him, and the opportunistic defense on the field Saturday, was ready for his big moment when it mattered most, in the only game that really matters for either team. The freshman got his test on Oct. 6, before he even ascended to the starting role. Reynolds entered the game at Air Force at 9:03 of the fourth quarter and led the Midshipmen to a come-from-behind, 28-21 victory over the Falcons in overtime. The victory gave them a shot at the CIC, and Saturday’s rally allowed Navy to hoist the hardware.
“If he can come into the Air Force game down by eight in the fourth quarter with eight minutes left at their place and have clear eyes and not miss a beat and not seem nervous … I don’t know if he can be in a tougher situation,” Niumatalolo said.
Army (2-10) again found itself in the difficult position of losing to Navy in its finale. It was even closer than 2011’s six-point defeat, but close doesn’t count.
“Give them credit. They did a nice job of throwing and catching [on the winning drive],”Army coach Rich Ellerson said. “That wasn’t the difference. The difference is the kicking game and turnovers. Those are the things that correlate with success. Those are the things that are fundamental to the game. The scoreboard will reflect those things.”
Ellerson declined to talk about the future of the program, or how Army will go back to the drawing board in an effort to end this unprecedented losing streak. Whatever the strategy, the Black Knights will have to deploy it without Steelman, whose college football career came to a most disappointing end. Niumatalolo, for one, doesn’t believe the senior should hang his head. Fumble or not.
“He’s a tough kid,” Niumatalolo said. “We should all be proud as Americans that that guy is going to go protect our country. They don’t get any tougher than Trent Steelman. Four years starting at West Point, a military service academy. I know everyone in our locker room has nothing but respect for that young man.”
Navy’s locker room was the site of yet another celebration on Saturday. Soon the Midshipmen (8-4) will be back to work; they face Arizona State in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl on Dec. 29. Whatever adversity they face in that contest, they likely will have faced it before.
“Normally I tell these guys to get ready and come back Monday, we’re going to run and get you treatment,” Niumatalolo said. “But I’m going to let these guys enjoy this one. These guys worked so hard. It’s probably one of the first times I’ve said that, but we are going to enjoy this one. It was a hard game to win and I’m happy for these guys.”