PHILADELPHIA, Pa. — I’ll admit it, even I was surprised.
I wasn’t surprised at all that the Navy Midshipmen (9-3) managed to beat the Army Black Knights (6-6) Saturday at Lincoln Financial Field, and I wasn’t terribly surprised they were able to win the game by a 31-17 final score.
I will admit that I was more than a bit surprised by how the Mids went about securing their 9th consecutive victory in the historic Army/Navy Game rivalry.
That’s because they did it in a very un-Navy-like way…by throwing the football.
For the first time since former Head Coach Paul Johnson’s triple option offense was installed in Annapolis in 2002 (the offense is still ran by current Navy Head Coach Ken Niumatalolo and Offensive Coordinator Ivin Jasper), the Midshipmen were out-gained on the ground by the Black Knights 209 yards to 139. It was the first time the Knights had outgained the Midshipmen on the ground in the series since 1999, when the Knights out-rushed the Mids by a 401-225 clip. (The Midshipmen actually won that game as well, 19-9.)
Saturday was also only the second time in 2010 that Navy was outgained on the ground, the only other coming in a 14-6 loss at Air Force on October 2nd.
Instead of winning the game by grinding things out on the ground, Navy’s offensive evolution with QB Ricky Dobbs continued. Dobbs used an effective passing attack to overcome turnover troubles while running the ball (the Senior from Douglasville, Georgia lost three fumbles on the day) and finish his career undefeated against the rival Black Knights.
It wasn’t that Navy was pass-happy. Dobbs completed only six passes in eleven attempts. But all of Dobbs’ completions were for 8 or more yards, with five of the six completions racking up double digit yards.
It all lead to a total of 186 yards passing for Dobbs, including long TD throws of 77 yards (to SB John Howell) and 32 yards (to WR Brandon Turner) which allowed the Midshipmen to establish a 17-0 advantage roughly 16 minutes into the game. The Midshipmen would never look back from there.
Niumatalolo said he thought the Midshipmen could find success in the air.
“Coach (Rich) Ellerson and Army do a great job of pressuring you and we just had to withstand it. We got some one-on-ones outside and we just had to take our chances. They have such a high pressure, attacking defense that we had to make sure we had the right protections so we could get some matchups we could take advantage of on the outside.”
Dobbs was thrilled to get the opportunity to throw the ball in Philly.
“I would much rather be throwing than running” said the quarterback after the game. “I’ve been able to do some pretty good things here as a quarterback.”
Despite using the passing attack to build a big early lead, it took another un-Navy-like characteristic to come away victorious; a big defensive play.
With just over one minute left to play in the first half, the Knights trailed 17-7 but had the ball at the Navy three yard line with a 1st and goal situation. A touchdown would have likely sent Army to intermission trailing by just three points, knowing they would get the ball to start the second half. Instead, Navy came away with the one of the biggest momentum changing plays in the recent history of the series.
Army QB Trent Steelman went to his right on an option run looking for paydirt. Instead, Navy LB Tyler Simmons was able to strip the ball out of his hands. Navy S Wyatt Middleton (who was voted the game’s Most Valuable Player) picked the ball up and raced 98 yards for a touchdown that extended the Mids’ lead to 24-3. With that moment, all drama was gone from the City of Brotherly Love.
“They had us reeling there” said Niumatalolo. “We preached all week about not giving them a short field, and we gave them exactly that. But our defense stepped up. That’s the last thing you want to do, give them a short field. It was a big play by Wyatt and he finished it.”
Middleton added “I still can’t believe I scored. As a defensive unit, that was a big time play right there.”
It was the first defensive touchdown of the season for Navy. Players said Defensive Coordinator Buddy Green had implored his unit during the week to breakthrough.
For all of the good things the Midshipmen have done in the last nine years, most wins have come by the “control things on the ground and score enough points to hold off the opponent” variety. Saturday was much different.
There’s no doubt that the installation of the triple option at West Point has helped the Knights improve. Not only did they win the rushing yards battle with Navy Saturday, but Saturday marked another significant change for Army in the series. For the first time since 1996, the Knights will play another football game following the rivalry battle; as they face SMU in the Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl December 30 at Gerald J. Ford Stadium in Dallas.
In a way, Army’s progress has been a direct result of trying to become like Navy. The improvement with Ellerson’s triple option is particularly reminiscent of how Navy improved almost immediately after installing Johnson’s offense in ’02. With Army looking to close the gap, Navy’s knows their ability to evolve and adapt is significant.
“They’ve gotten better” said Niumatalolo. “But we’re not a bad team ourselves.”
Hear from Niumatalolo, Middleton, Dobbs, Howell, Simmons, LB Aaron McCauley and OT Jeff Battipaglia following Saturday’s game NOW in the BuyAToyota.com Audio Vault here at WNST.net!