LANDOVER, Md. — It was emotional for players and incredible for fans, but make no mistake when it comes to the United States Naval Academy’s 27-21 win Saturday at FedEx Field over the United States Military Academy.
It wasn’t pretty.
Navy (5-7) blew a 14-0 first half lead and needed two Jon Teague field goals, a huge 4th down stop and a key offsides call on Army (3-9) in the 4th quarter to hang on to win their 10th straight game in the iconic Army/Navy rivalry series. The Midshipmen haven’t lost a game in the series since 2001, an unprecedented stretch of dominance in the series.
Yet this one was a bit different for a number of reasons.
Saturday’s game marked the first time since 2002 that the contest against Army would be the final game of the season for the Mids. In fact, not only had the Mids gone bowling in each of the past eight seasons, they had done so entering their battle with the Black Knights already bowl eligible in each of those eight seasons. Even after defeating their counterparts from West Point Saturday the season is over for Navy, as close losses earlier in the year to the likes of South Carolina, Air Force, Rutgers, East Carolina and San Jose State loomed large for a team needing only one more win to have clinched a trip to the Military Bowl.
Saturday’s game also stood out because the 27-21 final marked the slimmest margin of victory for the Mids in the series since a 30-28 win in December 2000 at the building then known as PSINet Stadium (now M&T Bank Stadium).
Both Saturday’s win and Navy’s season in general weren’t as easy as they have appeared to be in the past.
Of course, that might be a reminder of just how remarkable things have been in Annapolis over the past decade. Since 2002 (the first season for now Georgia Tech head coach Paul Johnson), the Midshipmen have posted an exceptional 77-50 overall record, including an undefeated record against Army and a 7-3 record against their other Academy rival Air Force-which has resulted in seven Commander-in-Chief’s Trophies.
(Despite the presence of Commander-in-Chief Barack Obama Saturday as Navy won, the C-i-C Trophy isn’t headed back to Annapolis. Their Mids’ loss to the Falcons earlier in the season means the Trophy will remain in Colorado Springs for another season.)
The stretch has also resulted in eight bowl game appearances. If you erase Johnson’s first season (2002) from the equation, the Mids have gone 75-40 over the last nine seasons under Johnson and current head coach Ken Niumatalolo, still undefeated against Army. (The eight bowl game appearances and seven C-i-C Trophies remain.)
Perhaps it explains the emotional nature of Niumatalolo following his team’s win Saturday. He knows just how difficult this stretch has been.
USNA fans have been spoiled by the success of their program in the past decade. Spoiled so much that it has become easy to simply expect their team to maintain such an incredible standard of performance.
The problem is that such a run of success has been much more difficult to achieve than it has appeared.
It isn’t easy for a service academy to defeat another service academy once. Navy found that out Saturday. After rushing TD’s from seniors Kriss Proctor and Alexander Teich put the Midshipmen ahead 14-0 in the first half it looked as though the team might waltz to another victory. That of course wasn’t going to be the case, as the Black Knights would go on to score touchdowns on their next three possessions (all three included involvement from QB Trent Steelman, RB Malcolm Brown or both) to make sure the Mids had to earn the win in the 4th quarter.
“That was a battle” Niumatalolo explained after the game. “I am very, very proud of our young men; very proud of the way our guys battled. This is my 14th Army-Navy game, but this one, from the beginning, was different. Adding in the fact that we don’t have a bowl game, you could feel it with our guys. The last couple of weeks you could see the emotion coming to practice because they knew this was it.”
Niumatalolo at times had to choke back tears during his post-game press conference, despite the fact that he was talking about what (record-wise) will go down as the worst Navy team since Johnson’s first season.
Winning at Navy is incredibly difficult, despite how easy it has looked over the course of the past decade.
The most likely scenario is that the next ten years won’t include eight bowl games. They won’t include seven Commander-in-Chief’s Trophies. They might even include (gasp!) a loss or two to Army along the way.
It won’t mean fans in Annapolis (and throughout the Baltimore and Washington regions) won’t have reasons to be proud. It just means things won’t always look this easy for Navy.
Mostly because things never really have been this easy for Navy.