Just another service academy thriller, stuffed with emotion
By JOHN FEINSTEIN | Special to The Washington Post | Published: October 6, 2019
The things that make military academy football unique must be seen, experienced and felt. But there was a moment Saturday evening just a few minutes after Navy had beaten Air Force, 34-25, in a donnybrook of a game that provided a dramatic snapshot of why this rivalry — like Army-Navy and Army-Air Force — is so special.
After the entire Brigade of Midshipmen had stormed the field to celebrate, after the playing of the alma maters, Air Force Coach Troy Calhoun — who had sought out as many Navy players as he could find in the postgame bedlam — made a beeline for Navy quarterback Malcolm Perry, the player most responsible for his team's heartbreaking defeat.
He hugged Perry and whispered in his ear for a couple of moments. "I just told him how great he was," Calhoun said as he headed to what he knew would be a devastated locker room. "He did everything today. He made some great throws. He was spectacular. I wanted him to know how much I respect him."
That's what these games are about: respect, intensity and a will to win. Both teams clearly had it on an early October day perfect for football. The coaches, Calhoun and Navy's Ken Niumatalolo, went deep into their bag of tricks, each running reverse throwbacks that worked, both having to throw the football because neither defense was going to give up much against the run.
Niumatalolo, who in the past has described himself as a "big crybaby," cried almost nonstop from midfield until he reached the locker room. It started when linebacker Jacob Springer threw his arms around him and said, "Coach, I love you so much. I just knew we were going to be back. Now, we're back."
That started the tears. With each hug — and there were dozens — Niumatalolo's tear-ducts filled again. And again.
Springer's comment to Niumatalolo was a reference to the 3-10 nightmare of a season the Cadets endured in 2018, a campaign that included a 35-7 loss at Air Force — an outlier in a series that almost always produces thrillers like this.
This was a long day's journey into night with too many heroes to count, but it was Perry, the 5-foot-10, 190-pound quarterback, who made the most crucial plays in the final minutes as the Mids, who had once led, 21-9, found themselves trailing, 25-21, late in the fourth quarter.
Air Force had gone ahead with 3:15 left in a scenario not unlike two years ago when the Falcons rallied to take a 45-41 lead late only to have Navy to escape with a 48-45 victory — driving the length of the field to score the winning touchdown with 15 seconds left.
This was an almost identical scenario. Navy needed to go 75 yards this time. The sky in Navy-Marine Corps Stadium was darkening, no one in the sellout crowd of 37,957 had made any move toward the exits. The Navy offense hadn't scored since a 20-yard Perry run with 6:36 left in the third quarter. Now, he had to find a way take his team the length of the field.
"Malcolm's such a tough kid," Niumatalolo said. "He just willed us to the finish. We just figured, we'd give him the ball and ride him to the end."
It was Perry who found C.J. Williams for a 32-yard completion after a holding penalty had put the Mids in a second-and-20 hole on their own 33. It was Perry who squeezed forward on 4th-and-1 from the Air Force 15 and picked up the first down by half the length of the football with 42 seconds left. It was Perry, on the next play, who dropped to throw, found no one open and sprinted right, tiptoeing down the sideline until he took a huge hit from 6-foot-5 inch, 270 pound defensive end Jordan Jackson as he reached the 3.
Niumatalolo and Navy offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper have pleaded with Perry to avoid hits whenever he can — go down or step out rather than plow into a defender. Perry could have stepped out of bounds at the 5, but he wanted every yard possible. He put his head down and plowed into Jackson, whose hit sent Perry somersaulting into the air. He looked like a high-jumper as he came down, but scrambled to his feet and raced back to his team's huddle.
"I told him he was going to be hurting tonight," Jasper said later with a laugh. "But that this time it was worth it."
One play later, Perry bolted into the end zone with 23 ticks left to give the Mids the lead for good, 28-25. Three Air Force incompletions later, quarterback Donald Hammond III, who was almost as good as Perry, tried to set up a multilateral play, but the ball came loose as receiver Geraud Sanders tried to pick it up and Navy's Tony Brown scooped it up and raced 8 yards for a meaningless score.
By then, as Air Force lined up for the final play, Niumatalolo was on his knees, looking for any help he could to get to the finish line.
His voice was hoarse and choked by the time he got enough quiet in the locker room to address his team. "I love you guys," he said. "I know I call you all sort of crazy names, but I'll keep doing it for moments like this. That's what it's for — for this."
He talked for a couple of more minutes and then finished by saying, "I always tell you guys to look ahead to next week and not go too crazy, but you know what? Screw it — let's enjoy this one!"
Perry will get the headlines — and deservedly so. But if there was ever a team victory in a team game, this was it. Both teams were desperate to win. Navy now has a chance to win the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy for the first time since 2015. Air Force will have to wait another year for a shot at getting back the trophy academy players covet most.
It could easily have gone the other way. It could have been Niumatalolo seeking out Hammond — as he surely would have — to congratulate him. Instead, it was Calhoun seeking out Perry — one overjoyed and sore, the other brokenhearted.
That's the way these games nearly end — with overwhelming joy and overwhelming heartbreak. That's the way it's supposed to be. Saturday evening in Navy-Marine Corps Stadium was exactly that.