At Friday night's team dinner, Navy's football team got areminder of what its annual tussle with Army means in a broader spectrum. Itarrived in the form of a United States flag.
"We had a flag sent to our football team that flew over the airport inBaghdad," 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 LincolnFinancial Field in yesterday's 104th edition of the rivalry. The Midshipmenunleashed a running game that was as numbing as the raw weather, gouging theBlack Knights for 359 yards on the ground.
Leading the way was fullback Kyle Eckel, a Philadelphia-born junior whopiled 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 knowif there's any other game like it."
In their season of resurgence, the Midshipmen climbed another rung up animprobable ladder. By sweeping Air Force and Army this season, they earned theacademy's first Commander in Chief's Trophy in 22 years for service footballsuperiority. At 8-4, they are tied for the third-most wins in the team's past40 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 announcedtoday.
"We knew we had some good players," Eckel said. "We had to learn how towin. 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 thefirst Division I-A team to go 0-13. That's about all they got out ofyesterday's game, though.
Navy never trailed after a 14-play drive covering 74 yards and 6:40 on theclock opened a 7-0 lead with its first possession. But its precisiontriple-option offense bogged down after that and the Midshipmen had to settlefor a 13-6 halftime lead.
It wasn't until the fourth quarter that they finally broke the game open onEckel's two scoring runs (16 and 12 yards). But it was never really in doubtafter they started the second half with an 80-yard touchdown drive.
Despite a total offense of 414 yards, a 10-minute advantage in time ofpossession, and only one penalty (for 5 yards), Johnson played the role ofperfectionist afterward. He thought Navy should have played better.
"We probably didn't run the ball as good as we could have," he said. "Wewere OK. Our guys missed some opportunities. [But] give Army credit. I thoughtwe played in spurts offensively."
The Midshipmen averaged 5.4 yards per carry on 67 rushes, a shade undertheir 5.5 average coming in. But on a day when the bitter elements would seemto have made their option offense a risky proposition, they handled the ballsuperbly. Their only turnover was an interception, and not one of seniorquarterback 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, soit 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 the1,000-yard mark.
The rush line was a long one. Slotbacks Tony Lane (71 yards on threecarries) and Eric Roberts (38 yards, two touchdowns) both burned the Armyperimeter with Candeto's perfect pitches. Lane had the longest run of the daywhen he bolted 54 yards to set up Eckel's first touchdown in the fourthquarter.
Roberts contributed the best pass-receiving play of the game, too, when heone-handed a Candeto pass at the Army 7 and fell to the 5. The pass covered 19yards. Two plays later, Roberts punched in a 2-yard touchdown run that gaveNavy a 20-6 lead in the third quarter.
After a turnover-free first half, the two teams exchanged threeinterceptions in the span of 87 seconds. That's when Army had its best chanceto get back in the game.
But quarterback Zac Dahman was intercepted by linebacker Bobby McClarin atthe Navy 4 when he threw into a crowd and by rover Eli Sanders at the Navy 19one series later.
Army's winless record coming in was a source of concern, not a jolt ofconfidence, it turned out for Navy.
"I think it worried most of us," linebacker Eddie Carthan said. "The oneswho played them before knew they'd do everything in their power not to be0-13."
But the power of Navy's relentless rush offense wouldn't be denied on thisday. Or the camaraderie in the locker room.
"The brotherhood we build here is pretty special," Eckel said. "You'replaying for the guy next to you, and you don't want to let him down."