Navy Recaptures Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy, With Thrilling 17-13 Win Over Army

The Navy Midshipmen defeated the Army Black Knights, 17-13, to capture the Commander-in-Chief’s trophy for the first time since 2009.

The ancient rivalry between Army and Navy is without a doubt the greatest in American collegiate athletics. On Saturday, December 8, 2012, they met at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia. It was the 113rd meeting of the schools overall, the 84th in Philadelphia, and the 8th meeting at the state-of-the-art football palace in South Philadelphia.

Four Philadelphia venues have hosted it: Franklin Field at Penn in University City, starting in 1899; Municipal (later JFK) Stadium and Veterans Stadium, both in South Philadelphia and both also now demolished, and now, the Linc. Army has never beaten Navy at the Linc, falling to them seven times.

Saturday’s soul-crushing, 17-13 loss to Navy, was particularly difficult for Army, because the four points represented the closest margin of victory for either side, since 2000. Also, entering the game, the Black Knights had lost ten straight to the Navy Midshipmen. It was the longest streak by either side in the 122-year history of the rivalry. Navy led all-time, 56–49–7, due to a decade of dominance.

Navy was heavily favored to continue the streak; Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo and the Midshipmen brought a 7-4 record into Philadelphia. The Midshipmen will be heading to San Francisco, for the Fight Hunger Bowl against Arizona State on December 29.

In contrast, Army had posted a 2-9 record. But significantly, on November 3, they had upset Air Force, 41-21, at West Point; it was their first win over the Falcons since 2005. A month earlier, on October 6, Navy had outlasted the Falcons in OT, 28-21, at Air Force. As a result, there were heightened implications for this showdown.

The Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy was also at stake for the winner of this game, for the first time since 2005, as both Army and Navy had previously beaten Air Force. In the 21st century, Navy has dominated Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy play. After this victory, they have a 19-2 record against Army (11-0) and Air Force (8-2) in their last 21 meetings. But Air Force had topped Navy in 2010 and 2011, taking the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy from Annapolis, where it had resided from 2003 to 2009.

Accordingly, due to its pair of losses, Air Force had shipped the enormous, gleaming, stunning, silver Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy – which is 2 ½ feet tall and 170 pounds – to Philadelphia, for its bestowal on Saturday’s winner. Both sides wanted it badly. "It means everything," Niumatalolo said. "That's our No. 1 goal, to get the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy. I'm just so happy for these guys."

It was trench warfare during the scoreless first quarter, as the teams battled for field position and traded punts. At one point, Navy punted and pinned Army at its own 1, but the Black Knights pushed out for 27 yards, and thus denied Navy a scoring opportunity after the punt.

However, the second quarter started auspiciously for Navy, as on its first possession, Noah Copeland rushed up the middle for 12 yards and a TD, for a 7 – 0 lead.

But Army answered on its next possession, with a 75-yard drive, capped by senior QB Trent Steelman’s 11 yard scamper into the end zone. It was now 7 – 7 with 6:20 remaining in the first half.

With both teams running so often, a long Navy drive would make it unlikely that Army would see the ball again before halftime - which is nearly what happened. Starting at their 21, the Midshipmen embarked on a 15-play, 65-yard drive to the Army 14, that lasted nearly six minutes. Although the Black Knights successfully defended their red zone, by denying a touchdown, Navy’s Nick Sloan – a plebe (i.e., freshman) kicker – drilled a 31-yard field goal to make it 10 – 7 with 0:40 left.

Nobody believed that Army’s offense had the potential to score on this possession. And they wouldn’t have, except for a 15 yard penalty on Navy on the kickoff return. Suddenly, Army had the ball at their own 41, with 0:25 to play and two timeouts.

Army coach Rich Ellerson wisely decided to try to score. Steelman brought the Black Knights to the Navy 24, and Ellerson sent out kicker Eric Osteen. Osteen, a senior, had been exclusively used for Army kickoffs, throughout his entire career. However, due to the struggles of a plebe kicker this year, Ellerson decided to try Osteen as the placekicker against Temple, against whom he kicked one field goal.

In other words, this would be only Osteen’s second field goal attempt, of his entire career. Navy called two timeouts to try to ice him. But the football gods smiled on Osteen and the Black Knights. Incredibly, the 41-yard shot clanged off the left upright and through, to knot the game at 10 – 10, as time expired.

(Last year, the game at FedEx Field in Landover, Md., had been tied after three quarters at 21 – 21, before Navy pulled out a 27 – 21 victory.)

Midway through the third quarter, Army got the break it needed. When Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds - a true freshman, who had taken over as the starting QB, halfway through the season - fumbled, the Black Knights took possession at the Navy 37. Eight running plays later, Army had 2nd and 1 at the Navy 2. A touchdown appeared certain.

But two running plays later, Army had been pushed back to the Navy 4. Ellerson had no choice but to send out kicker Osteen, who kicked a 21-yard field goal to give Army its first (and only) lead, 1310. In retrospect, the Black Knights’ failure to score a TD, cost them the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy, and ensured that it would return to Annapolis, for the first time since 2009.

Steelman: "I think we did the right thing in that situation. At the same time, field goals aren't going to win you games and you can't put that on our kicker. Touchdowns are going to win games."

The teams then traded punts. Army had just punted to Navy, when the third quarter ended. Last year, it had been tied at 21; this year, Army led, 13 – 10, after three quarters. Only 15 minutes separated the Black Knights from the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy, which the West Pointers hadn't claimed since 1996 - 16 years earlier.

Army forced another Navy punt, and started at its own 14, with 12:13 left. Steelman expertly led the Black Knights downfield. Run after run consumed the clock. Four first downs later, Army had the lead, and the ball at the Navy 24, with 9:31 left. If the Black Knights could reach the end zone, for a 20 – 10 lead well, it was very unlikely that Navy could score twice. This was the zenith of Army’s fortunes; they had all the momentum. Two dozen yards, and the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy was all but theirs.

But Navy stiffened, and rebuffed three Army runs, which gained just three yards. Osteen went out for a 37-yard field goal attempt. He had made two field goals already. If he made this one, Navy would require a touchdown to win. But he just missed to the left. So, it remained 13 – 10, and the momentum shifted back to Navy, with 6:57 left.

The central reason for Navy’s victory was that Niumatalolo could turn to the passing game, if necessary; Reynolds ultimately was 10 for 17 for 130 yards. In contrast, Steelman only threw it 5 times, completing 4 for 48 yards. As it turned out, both QBs finished with stellar QB ratings: 123.1 for Reynolds; 160.6 for Steelman.

Needing to pass, Reynolds quickly zipped the Midshipmen down the field. He completed two passes, with the big strike being a throw to Brandon Turner for a 49 yard gain. Navy was now down to Army’s 8, with 5:17 to play. On 1st and goal, Reynolds rushed to the right for an 8 yard touchdown - 17 – 13, Navy. Ironically, the swiftness of the strike (7 plays, 2:16, 80 yards) left a lot of time for Steelman and the Black Knights to score.

After Julian Crockett returned the kickoff for 13 yards, Steelman and the Black Knights had a daunting task ahead of them. They were starting at their own 17, with just 4:41 left and two timeouts. For a team which rarely throws the ball, 83 yards was a long way to go in a short time.

However, Steelman was more than up to the challenge. He heroically led the Black Knights once more down the field, leaving Navy reeling. Two consecutive passes, for a combined 25 yards, were the big plays. The first got the ball over the 50 with 2:49 left, at the Navy 40; the second reached the Navy 28. Three runs yielded an additional 14 yards and a first down at the Navy 14, with 1:53 left, and Army still had a timeout.

Then disaster struck. As Steelman handed off to Larry Dixon, the fullback fumbled the football. Steelman dove for it, but Navy’s Barry Dabney recovered the fumble at the Navy 11. The game was over.

Steelman: "It was routine triple option for us. Honestly, I don't really know what happened. It was a quarterback-fullback mesh but I'm running out of here so I'm going to put that one on me; there's no way I could put something like that on Larry. It's just unfortunate, I don't know how else to put it. I feel like we deserved that game in every way possible but it just didn't happen. We were wearing them down and there was nothing that was going to stop us, but that's life; things don't go your way sometimes. You've just got to be able to turn around."

Army had already fumbled five times and recovered three of them; but the Midshipmen recovered this sixth one. (Ref.: did the staff emphasize protecting the ball at halftime) Steelman: "That's an emphasis in every game, especially with the type of offense we run."

Thus, the Navy Midshipmen defeated the Army Black Knights, 17-13, to capture the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy for the first time since 2009. 69,607 fans saw Vice President Joe Biden present the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy to Navy for a record 13th time. (Air Force had won it in 2010 and 2011.) And, the Navy Midshipmen have now won 11 straight over the Army Black Knights.

"It's hard to do," Niumatalolo said. "It's hard to beat anybody in a rivalry game, but to do it that long just speaks volumes about the guys in the white jerseys."

(Ref.: what Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo said to him after the game)
Steelman: "To be honest, I don't really remember much, I was pretty torn up. I think he said that I was one of the toughest players he's ever seen and just a great player, and I respect him for that - he's a great coach."