College football is wracked by change, but Army-Navy is forever
The Washington Post December 10, 2023
Even as college football continues to explode with change — both for good and bad, but mostly bad — Army-Navy is always Army-Navy.
The cadets and midshipmen march onto the playing field, regardless of where it is; the parachutists jump into the stadium; the “stars,” as the players call the endless parade of generals and admirals that show up, drone on about the greatness of it all; and then — finally — the teams stage a rock fight of a football game.
Saturday was no different. For 55 minutes, the teams combined for 13 points — Army 10, Navy 3 — before an insane final five minutes led to the Black Knights winning the game — and the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy — by about a foot. Final score: Army 17, Navy 11.
It was Army’s second straight win over Navy decided by a matter of inches, and its sixth win in eight seasons against the Mids. Since neither team is going to a bowl game (Army finished 6-6, Navy 5-7), it was the final college football game for 33 Army seniors and 25 Navy seniors. Unbridled joy for the cadets, heartbreak for the midshipmen — all of them, not just those in uniform.
For reasons no one can really explain, Army-Navy has always been about streaks, especially in the last 30-plus years.
From 1992 to 1996, Army won five straight games — by a total of 10 points. From 2002 to 2015, Navy won 14 straight. Occasionally the games were close, occasionally they weren’t, but somehow, Navy always won.
And now, Army has won six of eight, with a total margin of 36 points in its six wins. The teams have been separated by eight total points in those eight games, with Army’s last two victories decided by a foot, or less.
A year ago, when Army won 20-17 in double overtime, Army’s defense stripped Navy’s Anton Hall Jr. a foot shy of a go-ahead touchdown with the score tied at 17 in the second overtime. Saturday evening, the Army defensive line stopped Navy quarterback Tai Lavatai inches short of making the score 17-15 with three seconds left on the clock, with a chance to tie it on a two-point conversion.
Sadly for Navy, the margin or the circumstances never matter in this rivalry. What matters is who sings their alma mater second. Saturday, it was Army. As always the joy and the despair were evident on the faces of the players and all 4,000 cadets and 4,000 midshipmen. This is, after all, the only college football game in which every healthy student from both schools is in attendance.
“It’s always like that. We had a 14-point lead and, one second to go, they’re standing there knocking on the door with a chance to tie the game up,” Army Coach Jeff Monken said. “Unreal.”
Monken just finished his 10th season at Army, having turned around a program that had become an embarrassment during the early years of the 21st century. Counterpart Brian Newberry is in his first season at Navy, having replaced Ken Niumatalolo, the school’s all-time winningest coach, a year ago. Newberry had been through four Army-Navy games as a defensive coordinator but this was his first as head coach.
During the week, he predicted that the game would be decided by which team made the fewest mistakes.
“That’s the way it always is in this game,” he said. “You can’t turn the ball over, you can’t take penalties, especially mental error penalties. You have to play with great emotion but not let your emotion control you.”
As it turned out, Newberry’s prediction was on the mark. The Mids had two crucial turnovers, including an Army scoop-and-score fumble recovery, and critical procedure and delay of game penalties — the delays coming before punts.
Army’s first touchdown, in the second quarter, came after Navy’s Xavier Arline, who started in this game as a freshman in 2020, threw an interception into double coverage. The subsequent touchdown came on another mistake, a blown coverage that led to a 4-yard scoring pass from Bryson Daily to Tyson Riley. Riley lined up wide right with no one on him while five Mids congregated in the middle of the field. By the time they realized their mistake and charged at Riley, Daily had zipped the pass to him.
Later, a procedure penalty led to what proved to be the clinching touchdown. The penalty changed third and three to third and eight and Army came with an all-out blitz instead of having to respect a possible run. Linebacker Kalib Fortner’s sack and 44-yard fumble return made the score 17-3 with 4:49 left. Game over.
Only, not over. Army made the mistake of backing off its defense and Lavatai quickly took the Mids downfield for a touchdown. Army recovered the onside kick but then had its worst possession of the day — two penalties, three runs and an 11-yard punt — to give Navy a final chance. With Army’s defense still backing up, the Mids drove 72 1/2 yards as the clock drained. Problem was, they needed 73.
Only after replay confirmed that Lavatai, who was brilliant on the last two drives of his final game, had come up inches short, did everyone watching exhale.
The clock hitting zero after Daily took a safety on the last play led — as always — to the best five minutes in sports, the playing of the alma maters. The losers sing first, usually with tears in their eyes. Then, the winners sing — also with tears in their eyes.
That is the essence of Army-Navy and it will never change, not next year, not ever.