In the middle of Navy's first possession yesterday, junior fullback Adam Ballard limped off the field in pain, and the tone was set for what would be an unusually tough day for the Midshipmen.
For the past four years, the Midshipmen had owned Army by overwhelming their service academy rival with the precision and speed of their spread option attack. This time, Army (3-9) brushed aside its turnover-marred, losing season by grabbing an early lead, disrupting the rhythm of the Navy option and moving the ball without making mistakes.
Until the second half.
That's when Navy finally sprang loose with a big play on offense, then closed out a 26-14 victory before 69,943 at Lincoln Financial Field, as its defense -- especially senior cornerback Keenan Little -- showed the way in crunch time by scoring nine fourth-quarter points.
The 107th meeting between Army and Navy ultimately came down to a resourceful group of players, led by a remarkable senior class that earned a place in Navy history by refusing to allow the Mids to lose.
For the first time, Navy (9-3) won its fourth consecutive Commander in Chief's Trophy by virtue of its season sweep of Army and Air Force. The senior class became the first in school history to go 8-0 against its service academy rivals, and Paul Johnson became only the second Navy coach to win his first five games against Army. Johnson is 9-1 combined against both opponents.
"I don't think we had our 'A' game today, and you have to give Army some credit for that. But we found a way to win without our 'A' game," Johnson said.
With the game tied at 7 in the third quarter, the Mids stepped up.
Senior wide receiver Jason Tomlinson took a reverse pitch, sprinted down the left sideline and used a great block by receiver Tyree Barnes to reach the end zone for a 33-yard touchdown and Navy's first lead at 14-7 with 8:49 left.
That set the table for the defense to finish off Army, which was flirting with its first turnover-free game of the season. But freshman quarterback Carson Williams finally cracked. He threw behind Jeremy Trimble on a slant-in, and junior defensive back Jeff Deliz made his first career interception at the Army 36. Seven plays later, Matt Harmon kicked a 35-yard field goal, giving Navy a 17-7 lead with 7:07 left in the contest.
Then, Little iced the deal. He picked off Williams and took it 40 yards down the right sideline for the score that made it 24-7 with 5:22 left.
"To make a play like that in this game is something you always dream about in practice," Little said.
On Army's next possession, senior linebacker Tyler Tidwell sacked Williams on back-to-back plays, the second one resulting in a safety to put the Mids in front, 26-7, with 3:50 to go.
"I can't remember the last time I played a team that fought so hard and played so hard. People were knocking each other's heads around," Tidwell said. "I got put on my back a couple of times early, and I was like, 'Oh, man, keep the pads low.' That was just a hard-nosed game. But, as usual, Coach Johnson found a way to stick it in there, and [the defense] felt like we had to put the nail in the coffin."
Said sophomore quarterback Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada: "I think it's fair to say [the defense] definitely bailed us out." Kaheaku-Enhada, who led the Mids to a modest 15 first downs and 264 rushing yards, hinted the high-pressure atmosphere of the rivalry got to him early. "I was missing reads like crazy on the first drive and some after that. I wasn't doing my job."
This marks only the third time in series history that Navy has won five straight over Army, although yesterday's achievement came at a price. Ballard, the team's leading rusher, will miss the Meineke Car Care Bowl on Dec. 30 after suffering a broken right leg on his second carry. He is scheduled for surgery tomorrow.
But the Mids, with more experience and depth, took Army's best shot and survived. They surrendered 151 passing yards, yet sacked Williams four times.
Army linebacker Barret Scruggs (13 tackles) led a defense that only allowed one play longer than 18 yards and forced a turnover and three Navy punts.
"We have a good [talent] base in our program, and we're very solid defensively," Army coach Bobby Ross said. "I think our program is getting closer [to Navy]."
With a third straight bowl-game victory, the Mids would tie the school record for most victories (36) by a senior class. Their opponent figures to be either Boston College or Maryland, which edged Navy, 23-20, in the 2005 season opener. Tidwell left no doubt about his preference.
"I'm praying to the football gods for Maryland, and I guarantee you that's who everybody else on the team wants. A backyard brawl," he said. "I'm sure the Terps probably don't want us. They don't have as much to gain from it. But it would be great for us."
A summary of Navy's 26-14 victory over Army:
What went right / / The defense made the difference in the closest contest during Navy's five-game winning streak over Army. The unit scored nine points in the fourth quarter on an interception and 40-yard return for a touchdown by senior CB Keenan Little and a safety by senior LB Tyler Tidwell. An interception by junior DB Jeff Deliz set up a 35-yard field goal by Matt Harmon early in the fourth quarter.
What went wrong / / The offense lost junior FB Adam Ballard on the first series to a broken right leg, then had trouble sustaining drives for most of the day, and big plays were hard to come by. Sophomore QB Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada had trouble with his option reads and completed just one of six pass attempts for 11 yards.
Defining moment / / Senior WR Jason Tomlinson, who was voted the game's Most Valuable Player, earned it with Navy's biggest play from scrimmage. He took a reverse pitch and sprinted 33 yards down the left sideline for a touchdown that gave Navy its first lead at 14-7 with 8:49 left in the third quarter. The Mids never trailed again.
What it means / / The senior class is the first at Navy to go 8-0 against Army and Air Force, and Paul Johnson is only the second coach in program history to win his first five games against Army.
Up next / / The Mids will play in the Meineke Car Care Bowl on Dec. 30 in Charlotte, and they hope the ACC opponent is Maryland.