After Friday’s offensive 66-63 circus between the University of Incarnate Word and Sacramento State University (my alma mater) in an FCS playoff matchup, watching the 123rd running of the Army-Navy Game was actually enjoyable. When isn’t it?
And America’s game was what you would have expected. A lot of running, a lot of tackling, and minimal scoring, until the end. It was the Black Knights’ turn this year to taste victory, pulling out the win, 20-17, in an exciting finish.
“What a win, what a game,” said Army head coach Jeff Monken in a postgame press conference. “That was two football teams that fought just as hard as they possibly could … and it feels like every single play, that the game is hanging in the balance … I still don’t know how we won.”
The fireworks ignited in the fourth quarter, with Navy on top 10-7. First, Army completed the game’s only pass in regulation, when Navy’s hybrid linebacker/safety John Marshall ironically blew an assignment — his speed allowed him to pursue and swallow up Army running backs and quarterbacks all day — and Army quarterback Cade Ballard hit Braheam Murphy for a 26-yard gain. Army was able to tie the game (10-10) with just under two minutes to play. The score remained tied at the end of regulation.
Only two plays were run in overtime, one by each team. On the first play of the overtime period, Army’s Markel Johnson ran between the tackles, bounced to the outside and cut upfield, taking the ball into the end zone for the touchdown. The Black Knights led 17-10. The Midshipmen scored immediately on their possession. Navy quarterback Xavier Arline found a wide-open Maquel Haywood on a wheel route, tying the contest 17-17. The Midshipmen had the first possession in the second overtime, but Anton Hall Jr., who scored a 77-yard TD in the third quarter, fumbled the ball near the goal line, and Army recovered. It didn’t take the Black Knights long to move the ball into field goal range. And that was the game.
“Obviously disappointed for our guys. They put everything on the line,” said Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo after the game. “A lot of plays in the game that could have changed the outcome. The punt (block) and the fumble at the end.”
Navy announced Sunday that Niumatalolo isn’t returning to the Naval Academy. He went 109-83 during his 15-year tenure in Annapolis and was the winningest coach in program history.
Army constantly set up in 7/8-man front base defense during the contest and never seemed concerned about Navy passing. It was justified, as the Midshipmen didn’t attempt any passes. But Navy’s triple option was in full effect, mitigating the effectiveness of Army’s All-American outside linebacker Andre Carter II. Arline finished the game with 102 yards rushing, and Anton Hall recorded 99 yards on seven carries. Army deployed a two-quarterback set that didn’t fool Navy, running sweeps instead of the option and spreading out the Midshipmen’s defense. Navy countered by placing an extra defensive lineman up front. The Midshipmen gained yardage by forcing Army to continually punt, improving field position on successive series. This led to a Navy field goal in the second quarter. The contest’s first points. But Army’s special teams made a strong play at the end of the first half. The Black Knights’ Noah Short blocked a punt that was recovered in the end zone by Nathaniel Smith for a touchdown. Army went into halftime with a 7-3 lead.