December 7, 2003
"We had a flag sent to our football team that flew over the airport in Baghdad," coach Paul Johnson said last night. "They thought enough of the Army-Navy game to pull that flag down and send it."
Navy returned the favor with a methodical 34-6 victory over Army at Lincoln Financial Field in yesterday's 104th edition of the rivalry. The Midshipmen unleashed a running game that was as numbing as the raw weather, gouging the Black Knights for 359 yards on the ground.
Leading the way was fullback Kyle Eckel, a Philadelphia-born junior who piled up 152 rushing yards, two touchdowns and the game's MVP award.
"It's bigger than football," he said of the Army-Navy game. "I don't know if there's any other game like it."
In their season of resurgence, the Midshipmen climbed another rung up an improbable ladder. By sweeping Air Force and Army this season, they earned the academy's first Commander in Chief's Trophy in 22 years for service football superiority. At 8-4, they are tied for the third-most wins in the team's past 40 years.
And one year after going 2-10, they're going to the Houston Bowl on Dec. 30, to play either Texas Tech or Nebraska. The opponent will be announced today.
"We knew we had some good players," Eckel said. "We had to learn how to win. We've been losing for a pretty long time, so we learned a lot. This year, we used everything we learned."
Army may take some consolation in that discovery. The Knights became the first Division I-A team to go 0-13. That's about all they got out of yesterday's game, though.
Navy never trailed after a 14-play drive covering 74 yards and 6:40 on the clock opened a 7-0 lead with its first possession. But its precision triple-option offense bogged down after that and the Midshipmen had to settle for a 13-6 halftime lead.
It wasn't until the fourth quarter that they finally broke the game open on Eckel's two scoring runs (16 and 12 yards). But it was never really in doubt after they started the second half with an 80-yard touchdown drive.
Despite a total offense of 414 yards, a 10-minute advantage in time of possession, and only one penalty (for 5 yards), Johnson played the role of perfectionist afterward. He thought Navy should have played better.
"We probably didn't run the ball as good as we could have," he said. "We were OK. Our guys missed some opportunities. [But] give Army credit. I thought we played in spurts offensively."
The Midshipmen averaged 5.4 yards per carry on 67 rushes, a shade under their 5.5 average coming in. But on a day when the bitter elements would seem to have made their option offense a risky proposition, they handled the ball superbly. Their only turnover was an interception, and not one of senior quarterback Craig Candeto's pitchouts found the frozen ground.
"It wasn't too bad," Candeto said of the cold. "The field was a little wet, but the refs did a nice job of changing the ball. And we had hand warmers, so it wasn't a big factor."
Candeto ran for 58 yards to join Eckel as 1,000-yard rushers this season. It's the first time in Navy history the team has had two players go over the 1,000-yard mark.
The rush line was a long one. Slotbacks Tony Lane (71 yards on three carries) and Eric Roberts (38 yards, two touchdowns) both burned the Army perimeter with Candeto's perfect pitches. Lane had the longest run of the day when he bolted 54 yards to set up Eckel's first touchdown in the fourth quarter.
Roberts contributed the best pass-receiving play of the game, too, when he one-handed a Candeto pass at the Army 7 and fell to the 5. The pass covered 19 yards. Two plays later, Roberts punched in a 2-yard touchdown run that gave Navy a 20-6 lead in the third quarter.
After a turnover-free first half, the two teams exchanged three interceptions in the span of 87 seconds. That's when Army had its best chance to get back in the game.
But quarterback Zac Dahman was intercepted by linebacker Bobby McClarin at the Navy 4 when he threw into a crowd and by rover Eli Sanders at the Navy 19 one series later.
Army's winless record coming in was a source of concern, not a jolt of confidence, it turned out for Navy.
"I think it worried most of us," linebacker Eddie Carthan said. "The ones who played them before knew they'd do everything in their power not to be 0-13."
But the power of Navy's relentless rush offense wouldn't be denied on this day. Or the camaraderie in the locker room.
"The brotherhood we build here is pretty special," Eckel said. "You're playing for the guy next to you, and you don't want to let him down."
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