Army fumbles away chance to end Navy's streak
PHILADELPHIA – After allowing Army its first touchdown in the annual series since 2006, the Navy football team was in danger of seeing its recent dominance slip away, too.
Wyatt Middleton made sure it didn’t happen.
Middleton, a senior co-captain, snatched a fumble by Army quarterback Trent Steelman out of mid-air and returned it 98 yards for a back-breaking touchdown that gave Navy a commanding lead on its way to a 31-17 victory in the 111th Army-Navy Game on Saturday before 69,223 at Lincoln Financial Field.
At the time, it didn’t occur to the safety that his play was a game-changer.
“I still can’t believe I scored,” said Middleton, who was voted the game’s Most Valuable Player. “It kind of hit me right now, now that we won…. As a defensive unit, our backs were definitely against the wall. I just happened to be the guy there to catch it. … As a defensive unit, that was a big-time play for us.”
Navy quarterback Ricky Dobbs’ third fumble of the game, forced by defensive end Josh McNary and recovered by linebacker Stephen Anderson, gave Army the ball at its own 48 with 7 minutes, 20 seconds remaining in the first half. The Black Knights began to grind out yardage, and 12 plays later Army was 3 yards away from cutting the deficit to 17-14.
Steelman kept the ball, as he had done on the three previous plays, but the Navy defense stood him up at the 2. Out squirted the ball, knocked loose by junior linebacker Tyler Simmons, and off Middleton went. The last 10 or so yards of his run, Middleton held the ball out and pumped it toward the Navy student section at the corner of the end zone as the middies went wild with 1:03 left until halftime.
The touchdown took away Army’s momentum and, effectively, its chances of stopping Navy’s winning streak. The Midshipmen (9-3) beat the Black Knights (6-6) for an unprecedented ninth straight time, and they hold a 55-49-7 advantage in the series dating back to 1890.
Middleton recovered two fumbles and finished with nine tackles.
Both teams struggled with turnovers. Dobbs also threw an interception, and Army lost two fumbles.
“I’m just very proud of our team and our seniors,” said Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo, whose team next faces San Diego State in the Poinsettia Bowl on Dec. 23 in San Diego. “We stressed taking care of the football for the last three weeks. Obviously I did a bad job of coaching with all the turnovers we had. We’re fortunate we got some turnovers ourselves. The play by Wyatt Middleton came at a big point in the game and was a huge play.”
It was crushing for Steelman and the Black Knights.
“To see the ball slip out like that, it was heartbreaking,” the sophomore said. “Honestly, I really don’t know what happened. We have three plays to get it in the end zone, and I have to protect [the ball]."
“For the seniors, we did everything we could to send them off in the right way,” he said.
Alex Carleton’s 42-yard field goal on the opening possession of the second half cut Army’s deficit to 24-10, and the Black Knights got the ball back when defensive back Richard King intercepted a Dobbs pass in the end zone on Navy’s ensuing series.
The Black Knights had some success running the ball, but failed to capitalize. Middleton broke up a pass with a big hit along the right sideline, and Army fullback Jared Hassin was thrown for a 6-yard loss on the last play of the third quarter that forced Army, still trailing by two touchdowns, to open the fourth with a punt.
Navy chewed up the first 9:03 of the final quarter with a 13-play, 87-yard drive capped by Gee Gee Greene’s 25-yard run. Army’s last glimmer of hope, a penalty flag, lay on the field as the Midshipmen celebrated.
The call was a facemask against Army, and a 31-10 margin for Navy.
"We needed that," Niumatalolo said. "Give [Army] credit. They came back after that drive and battled, and then our guys responded. This whole year, our guys continued to compete."
Steelman, who went 11-for-20 passing for 128 yards and two TDs, completed a 45-yarder to Malcolm Brown with 4:05 remaining to make it 31-17.
Navy recovered the onside kick, but failed to gain a first down and was forced to punt. Army, which had been forced to burn its timeouts, ran a hurry-up offense but failed to score in the closing minutes. The Midshipmen stopped Steelman on fourth and goal with 5 seconds remaining, and Niumatalolo got a Gatorade shower.
Army was forced to soak up another defeat in the storied series.
“We’ve played just well enough all year to bring winning football back,” said Army coach Rich Ellerson, whose team is headed to its first bowl game since 1996, a matchup with SMU in the Armed Forces Bowl on Dec. 30 in Dallas. “We’re 6-6 now. I’ve got to somehow, someway get everyone focused on that, and not this.”
Dobbs completed six of 11 passes for 186 yards and two TDs, including a 77-yarder to John Howell that made it 10-0 in the first quarter. It was the longest pass play in Army-Navy history, surpassing a 69-yarder from Navy’s Brian Broadwater to Ryan Read in 1998. Dobbs has thrown 12 TD passes this season, tying Alton Grizzard for most in a season at Navy.
Dobbs led the Midshipmen in rushing with 54 yards on 20 carries. Steelman led the Black Knights with 74 yards on 19 carries. Both teams finished well below their rushing averages. Navy, which came into the game No. 5 in the nation at 302 yards a game, netted 139 yards on the ground. Army had been No. 9 nationally with an average of 260, but finished with 209.
Navy's seniors had a chance to become the first class to keep Army out of the end zone for four straight years, but had to settle for outscoring the Black Knights 120-23 during that span. The Midshipmen now have a chance to tie the program record for season victories with a 10th in the Poinsettia Bowl.
"[The Black Knights] are a good, well-coached football team, and we feel very fortunate to come away with a W," Niumatalolo said. "They've gotten better, but we're not a bad team ourselves."