The 101st Army-Navy football game delivered everything you might expect from two teams that came into yesterday's tradition-bound matchup with a combined 1-19 record.
There were seven turnovers, a couple of blocked kicks and more odd twists and turns than a Florida election. But Navy's 30-28 victory at jam-packed PSINet Stadium still lived up to the storied history that has made this annual meeting of the nation's two oldest service academies one of college football's greatest rivalries."I've never been around more ups and downs and peaks and valleys as this in an Army-Navy football game," said Charlie Weatherbie, who became the first Navy coach to beat Army in Baltimore, "but what makes it special is what these guys stand for."
The Midshipmen took advantage of a string of Army mistakes and a strong all-around performance by senior quarterback Brian Broadwater to dominate the first half, but the Black Knights stormed back in the fourth quarter to pull within a couple of questionable officials' calls of a dramatic comeback.
Army recovered an onside kick with 2:44 remaining, but the officials ruled that the ball was touched a couple of feet before it traveled the 10 yards necessary for the kicking team to keep possession.
Navy couldn't feel completely comfortable until Army defensive back Andrew Burke ran into kicker David Hills on a 43-yard field-goal attempt, the disputed penalty giving the Midshipmen a first down and the opportunity to burn the game's remaining 93 seconds. The victory averted their first winless season since 1973.
"What an emotional roller coaster," Weatherbie said. "I'm not sure I've ever been around anything quite like this season or quite like that game. To come through the adversity that this team has come through is a testament to the young men we have in our service branches."
The classic game returned to Baltimore for the first time since 1944 and fans turned out in record numbers to enjoy the pomp and circumstance that accompanies the annual salute to the Naval Academy and West Point. The crowd of 70,685 was the largest to see a game at the 2 1/2 -year-old stadium.
Maybe the game wasn't a work of art, but it proved that two evenly matched teams - regardless of their records - can put on an entertaining show. The chilly afternoon was a montage of big plays, including back-to-back defensive touchdowns in the waning minutes of the third quarter.
The Midshipmen appeared to put the game away when co-captain Brad Wimsatt picked up a fumble near the Army goal line and scrambled into the end zone to give Navy a commanding 27-7 lead with 3 1/2 minutes left in the third quarter. But just two minutes later, Army defensive back Ben Woodruff scooped up a blocked punt and sprinted 7 yards into the end zone to spark a dynamic momentum shift.
When second-string Army quarterback Curtis Zervic hit wide receiver Brian Bruenton with a 23-yard touchdown pass midway through the fourth quarter, the Midshipmen were faced with the disturbing possibility of another dramatic Army comeback.`Those guys are just like us," said Navy free safety Chris Lepore. `There was no way they were going to quit. Why was it different [in the second half]? Their coaches ran some different formations, but it is just that those guys aren't going to go out there and let us walk all over them for four quarters. They're just like us. We wouldn't either."
The Black Knights actually struck first in the game, scoring on the first play of their second possession when running back Michael Wallace broke free for a 65-yard run. Broadwater led the Midshipmen back, driving them into position for a field goal midway through the first quarter and sprinting 45 yards for a touchdown on the next Navy possession.
"It was a great team effort out there," said Broadwater, who rushed for 121 yards and passed for 88 in his final collegiate game. "We felt if we could finish the season with a victory, it would wear away the sting a little big from the first 10 games."
Wallace delivered an equally impressive performance for Army, rushing 19 times for 159 yards and reaching 1,000 yards for the season, but the loss left the Knights with little to console themselves after a 1-10 season.
"It obviously is a disappointing loss," said Army coach Todd Berry. "Any loss is hard, but I think this one is especially hard for a number of reasons. For everyone, it becomes a very, very difficult game. We didn't necessarily play well. That's pretty obvious with the turnovers and the penalties that were called on us. We kept finding ways to shoot ourselves in the foot."
The Navy defense intercepted two passes and recovered three fumbles. Lepore had a fumble recovery and an interception. He accounted for eight of Navy's 18 forced turnovers this season.
Still, there was room to wonder if the outcome might have been different if Army had not lost a chance to get the ball back in the final minutes because of the 5-yard roughing-the-kicker penalty. Burke did make contact with Hills, but he merely backed into him at the end of the play.
"When they showed it on the JumboTron, and you take a look, there is no way he should make that call," Wallace said.
Army had all the momentum at that point, thanks to a midstream quarterback switch that seemed to energize the offense. Berry pulled senior Joe Gerena in the third quarter and subbed in Zervic, who only a year ago was the manager of the Army lacrosse team.
Zervic completed nine of 15 passes for 99 yards and the two fourth-quarter touchdowns. He would have needed to drive the team about 40 yards to get in position for a potential game-winning field goal. He never got the chance.
"Curtis did come in and provide a nice spark for the team," Berry said. "We knew we were going to have to start throwing the ball in order to make a comeback. ... I'm very proud of Curtis. He was the lacrosse manager last year and started off about 10th-team [on the depth chart] in the spring. He worked his way up and this was a good opportunity for him."
Berry acknowledged the importance of the failed onside kick and the penalty on the errant field goal, but he couldn't blame the officials for his team's aborted comeback.`Those were two big plays," he said, "but it should never come down to that. If we played better in the first half, it doesn't come down to that. If we're a little more careful on the onside attempt; if we're a little more careful on the field-goal attempt, it doesn't come down to that. That's part of the learning curve we are going through."