PHILADELPHIA — The first pass Army attempted against Navy hit on turbulence upon liftoff from quarterback Ahmad Bradshaw’s right hand and fluttered through the air like a paper airplane, ignoring the basic laws of aerodynamics and wobbling toward the ground like a burst balloon. Amazingly, it landed in the arms of a waiting receiver. First down, Cadets. Just as planned.
Snow does funny things to football. Each game begins with a basic plan: We’ll do this and this and this, and if this happens we’ll do that. But snow can disrupt even the best-laid game plans. Snow-day matchups turn into backyard games featuring brothers, sisters and neighbors, where overlarge jackets and soggy gloves turn even the most basic plays into exercises in futility.
But there’s something magical about the snow. There’s also something magical about the Army-Navy game. Add them together and you get Saturday. For an afternoon in December, during a game with no meaning on a national scale — as a whole, we’ve become obsessed with all things College Football Playoff and little else — the Cadets and Midshipmen played for pride and bragging rights in our only national rivalry. And they did it in the snow.
HIGHLIGHTS: Best of the 118th Army-Navy football game
From this chaos and disarray — stiff winds, slippery cleats, frozen digits and blustery conditions — came another dash of disorder. Navy had spent the past calendar year thinking about Army, as the Midshipmen always do, but with a twist: Navy thought about losing to Army. It was an unfamiliar emotion. So for a year they stewed and obsessed over that loss. It drove the Midshipmen.
Fourteen years of supremacy in this series has now been replaced by a losing streak. Saturday’s win, a 14-13 classic not sealed until Navy kicker Barrett Moehring’s 48-yard try drifted left as time expired, marks Army’s second win in a row in a series owned by the Midshipmen for a generation.
Set in stone for years, with parades of Navy seniors entering and exiting the academy without a single loss to the Cadets, the order of this series has been redrawn. Army owns a winning streak. Navy owns questions.
“I’m sorry to all the seniors. Sorry to the team. Sorry to Coach Niumatalolo,” Moehring said. “It’s just really tough. It’s really tough. I mean, I wake up every day and I thank the Lord for giving me the ability to play football in the first place. You know, I dream of times like this. Unfortunately, it just went the wrong way today.”
In the span of two seasons, a familiar script has been upended: Army is the top program in this rivalry, not just owners of a winning streak but the better team in the standings — beating San Diego State in the Armed Forces Bowl would give the Cadets their most wins in a two-year span since 1945-46, when Mr. Inside and Mr. Outside made Army the most dominant program in college football.
“It was another classic game,” Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo said. “Unfortunately for us, we were on the short end of the stick.”
All dry-eyed, hurt and shaken but not broke, Navy players and coaches spoke as Army whooped and hollered, putting the Midshipmen’s postgame interviews to an unfortunate soundtrack. But someone has to win this game; someone has to lose. For too long, Army sang first, not second. This is new territory for the Midshipmen.
The same can be said of the team’s regular season.
Once unbeaten and ranked in the Amway Coaches Poll, Navy will limp into the postseason losers of six of seven, all but two by single digits. The widest margin of defeat, 10 points, was matched twice, against UCF and Houston. To lose close games is rare for Navy, which with a commitment to the running game, ball control and avoiding turnovers has often lulled opponents into crucial errors.
But this hasn’t been a normal season. Statistically — especially when judged by the key metric of yards allowed per play — this has been among the weakest defenses in recent program history. With a game left, the team’s 50 penalties are its most in at least a decade. Third nationally in turnover margin as recently as two years ago, the Midshipmen enter the postseason among the nation’s worst.
It might have been fitting that mistakes doomed their cause against Army. There was quarterback Malcolm Perry — a star in the making after his 250 yards rushing — tripping at Army’s 11-yard line on a scamper toward the end of a long run in the third quarter, leading Navy to trade six points for a field goal. There were the two penalties late in the game that turned a makeable try for Moehring into a 48-yard attempt just shy of his range.
“We’ve got to get better,” Niumatalolo said. “We’ve got to get better as a team. We’ll look during the offseason at things we can get improve on. Army’s better, and the (American Athletic Conference) is better.”
But this was coming: Army inched closer to Navy the moment it hired Jeff Monken four seasons ago and has since taken the lead, putting Navy in the position of scratching and clawing its way back to the top of this rivalry and the chase for the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy. For nearly all of Niumatalolo’s tenure — and longer, dating to Paul Johnson’s foundation-laying run — Navy has learned how to handle success. Now the Midshipmen must solve the riddle of how to deal with failure, and how to regain lost ground.
“It sucks. That’s pretty much it,” said linebacker Micah Thomas.
Added fellow linebacker D.J. Palmore, “It just slipped away at the end.”
So Navy will spend the next calendar year like they spent the last: thinking about Army, and specifically about the loss. The magic of the game remains, doubled Saturday by the snow. The meaning remains even as college football loses some sight of the individual matchups to place almost all its attention on the national championship. The latest Army-Navy game was a classic, just like those that came before.
The only thing that gets old is losing. Army knows the feeling of coming up short in the rivalry, not just once but twice, three times, four times, five. Now Navy does as well. As the weather worsened, the snow collecting in inches on Lincoln Financial Field, the Midshipmen, hurting, trudged toward their bus, set for the drive back to Annapolis, aware that the next year will be spent thinking of one thing — how to fix what ailed this team, and how restore some order to the series.
“It’s tough right now,” Niumatalolo said. “You feel for our players, you feel for those kids. We’ll regroup. They’re tough, resilient kids. But this one hurts. This will be a tough one to get over.”