Navy wins 10th in a row over Army, 27-21
LANDOVER, Md. — Navy’s frequently frustrating season finally ended Saturday. It didn’t conclude, as it has for the past several seasons, with an appearance in a bowl game. It didn’t conclude with a national championship, as it will for LSU or Alabama in a few weeks.
In the minds of the Midshipmen, though, it ended with the greatest prize of them all: a hard-fought, 27-21 victory over Army in the 112th edition of the storied rivalry before 80,789 on Saturday at FedEx Field.
Navy (5-7) extended its series-best winning streak against Army (3-9) to 10 games.
Five of Navy’s seven losses this season came by a total of 11 points. The Mids were 2-5 in games decided by eight points or less like Saturday’s contest, the closest Army-Navy game since Navy’s 30-28 victory in 2000. Had a few plays gone differently, the Midshipmen would likely be preparing for a bowl.
Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo thinks they concluded with something more meaningful.
“(Leading up to Army-Navy) we talked about ‘what did we learn from the season?’ We really learned some tough lessons,” Niumatalolo said. “But the one thing I learned, as our head coach: our team is like this (clasping his hands). I mean, our guys love each other. Yeah, we’d like to have a better record … but their love for each other and how they feel about each other? If anything, it got tighter. Our guys, they stayed close, they stayed together and that’s the thing I learned from our team.”
Army put that camaraderie to the test. The Black Knights erased an early two-touchdown deficit to forge a 14-14 tie at halftime. The teams were all even after three quarters. It was in the final quarter that Navy showed it had become that band of brothers about which Niumatalolo was speaking.
Senior Jon Teague, who struggled during the season (10-for-15), kicked two big field goals in the fourth quarter: a 23-yarder that gave Navy a 24-21 lead and a 44-yarder that accounted for the margin of victory.
“It’s just a game,” Niumatalolo said. “Some people said some things (about Teague) like he had committed a crime. I’m just so happy for him. It couldn’t have ended better for someone like Jon, who had to persevere through so much criticism.”
Teague was equally pleased with the outcome.
“This is something you always dream of,” Teague said. “I’m not going to lie; I would rather beat Army by 40 points than having it come down to a kick. I know it sounds cliché, but it really is the best feeling in the world. It was great to come through for my brothers today.”
The defense did the rest.
Army pushed the ball downfield after Teague’s second kick, and had a first down at the Navy 28-yard line with just over five minutes remaining. Junior linebacker Matt Warrick stalled the momentum by pulling down Army quarterback Trent Steelman for his first career sack. The Black Knights ran for a short gain, and called timeout on fourth-and-7 at the Navy 25 with 4:39 remaining.
With that elusive victory within reach, Army elected to go for it rather than try a long field goal that would have cut Navy’s lead to three. Steelman ran a keeper, but was thrown for another loss by Warrick that gave the ball back to Navy with 4:31 left.
“We kind of knew where our parameters were early on. We have a bunch of 7-yard plays out there,” Army coach Rich Ellerson said. “We didn’t have one (on the key play), but I just felt like that was the place to go. I still felt like if we could get them stopped, we had our timeouts, and we could get another possession there. In hindsight, I’ll kick it. If you kick and miss it you’re in the same boat, but you still have your timeouts.”
Navy made Army burn one of those timeouts. Senior quarterback Kriss Proctor kept the ball on five straight plays, until Navy faced a fourth-and-1 at its 48. Then, the Midshipmen essentially sealed their decade-long winning streak without snapping the football. They lined up to snap the ball, but everyone in the house knew that they were trying to lure the Black Knights offsides.
Army knew it, too, but jumped anyway. The infraction gave Navy a first down at the Army 47 with 2:04 remaining. Army was forced to burn its final timeout, but the Black Knights managed to force a Navy punt with 10 seconds remaining.
With two ticks left on the clock, Steelman completed a 29-yard pass to Davyd Brooks as time expired. Navy made the tackle, and the celebration began.
“I was going to see if I was going to take a timeout,” Niumatalolo said. “We got them on that last year, too. In my wildest dream I didn’t think we’d get them (to jump offside). I was just doing that to take a chance, and fortunately we did get them (to jump).”
He was going to see, but he couldn’t bear to watch.
“I’ll show you what kind of coach I was; I wasn’t even looking. I was praying,” Niumatalolo said. “I had my head down. I didn’t see what happened. … I just had my head down just praying (defensive end Tunai) Jabaree would make a sack or something would happen. I didn’t even see the play.”
The teams’ losing records and comparable stats offered promise that this year’s Army-Navy game would be much more competitive than most during Navy’s recent reign. It lived up to that promise.
“We’re not playing in a bowl game this year, but we are playing in a bowl game this year (the Army-Navy game),” Proctor said. “To win 10 games in a row is unheard of.”
Navy, which was 5-0 this season when leading after one quarter, went up 7-0 in the first quarter on a 4-yard run by Proctor, and extended the lead to 14-0 in the second on a 10-yard run by senior fullback Alexander Teich, who last week was invited to join the Navy SEALs after graduation.
Army responded with a 34-yard TD run by Steelman in the second quarter and a 5-yard TD run just before the end of the quarter that left the teams tied at halftime for the first time since 2006.
Teich gave the Mids some momentum to start the second half with a 48-yard kickoff return to the Army 48. Five plays later, Proctor ran in from 2 yards out for his second touchdown and a 21-14 Navy lead.
Again Army responded, this time with a 25-yard pass from Steelman to Malcom Brown that made it 21-21.
Navy retook the lead with an 18-play, 79-yard drive that chewed up 9:12 late in the third and early in the fourth quarter. Proctor converted a fourth-and-1 deep in Army territory with a 6-yard keeper on the final play of the third quarter.
Navy had first-and-goal at the Army 2-yard line but failed to punch the ball into the end zone. The Midshipmen moved it to the 1, but a false-start penalty pushed them back to the 6 and ultimately forced them to settle for Teague’s 23-yard field goal.
Army’s Scott Williams fumbled the ensuing kickoff, the result of a big hit by Navy’s Noah Copeland, and the Mids’ Jordan Drake recovered at Army’s 27. Four plays later, after gaining no yards, Teague’s 44-yarder put Navy up 27-21.
Army hurt its chances with fumbles and penalties. The Black Knights lost three fumbles and committed five penalties for 45 yards, including two 15-yard, chop-block infractions. Army entered the game tied for third in the nation in fewest penalties per game with an average of 4.0 (Navy was No. 1 at 2.4).
Navy lost two of its four fumbles, but committed only two penalties, one of them a delay-of-game call it took intentionally to run time off the clock before punting to Army for the final time.
“We just need to do the things that correlate with success on the scoreboard,” Ellerson said of his team, whose four-game losing streak is the longest in his three seasons. “Right on the top of that list is turnovers and kicking game. I wish I could tell you there’s something metaphysical, but it’s not. It’s as black and white as you can get.”
Army, which came into the game leading the nation in rushing with an average of 350.9 yards a game, finished with 298. Navy rushed for 296.
Proctor led Navy with 127 yards on 32 carries, and Teich ran 18 times for 93 yards. Malcom Brown and Raymond Maples each rushed for 82 yards to lead Army. Maples also became the 15th Army player to rush for 1,000 yards in a season (1,066) and only the third sophomore to do so.
Neither Army nor Navy could claim the Commander in Chief’s Trophy, which went to Air Force for the second straight season. Instead, they got the Commander in Chief. President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden were among those treated to Saturday’s thoroughly entertaining contest.
Soon, many of these players will be making more important and weighty contributions to their country.
“I am proud of our seniors,” Niumatalolo said. “I wish them the best as they move on and serve our country. Our country is in good hands with those seniors that are leaving and going into the Fleet and the Marine Corps. Those are some great young men. Having said that, it’s the same with West Point. Those are some classy young men. Our country is in good hands.”