A frustrating Navy football season previously punctuated by narrow defeats and botched kicks ended with a sloppy but satisfying 27-21 victory Saturday at FedEx Field before a crowd of 80,789 that included President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden.
Navy (5-7) finished its first losing season in nine years with its 10th straight victory over Army (3-9). It was the closest game in the 112-game rivalry since a 30-28 win for the Midshipmen in 2000. Two fourth-quarter field goals by beleaguered placekicker Jon Teague provided the margin of victory.
"This one from the beginning was different," said fourth-year Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo, his eyes welling with tears. "Also add in the fact that we didn't have a bowl game [for the first time in eight years]. Just the last couple of weeks, you could see the emotions coming to practice because they knew this was it."
Teague, who had a crucial point-after touchdown blocked in a season-changing overtime loss to Air Force and missed potential winning or game-tying field goals against Rutgers and East Carolina, made field goals of 23 and 41 yards to pull Navy out of a tie at 21.
But Teague wasn't the only senior to play an important role in Navy's victory.
Quarterback Kriss Proctor, who played the second half of the season after missing a game with a dislocated left elbow, overcame the flu this week and two fumbles Saturday to finish with a game-high 97 yards rushing and two touchdowns.
Fullback Alexander Teich, who was suspended for a game after leaving the field before Air Force sang its alma mater in an October defeat that cost Navy a chance at regaining the Commander in Chief's Trophy, had 93 yards on 18 carries and scored one touchdown. He also set up one of Proctor's touchdowns with a 48-yard kickoff return to start the second half.
Defensive end Jabaree Tuani forced Army's first fumble and recovered a second. He also had six tackles. Both of the turnovers led to touchdowns as Navy took a 14-0 lead with a little over seven minutes left in the first half.
"I'm proud of our seniors to send them out that way," Niumatalolo said. "I couldn't ask for a better ending for them. ... Those guys can leave here with their head up that they beat their rivals four times in a row. Not many classes that have come to the Naval Academy have that honor. It's something they can carry with them for the rest of their lives."
Said Tuani: "It is amazing to see where the program has come from [before Navy's winning streak]. This year didn't turn out the way we wanted it to. But that was on us. Today was like the whole season."
The early 14-0 lead -- a rarity for the Midshipmen this season -- disappeared in a span of two minutes and 45 seconds late in the first half. After Teich's kickoff return seemed to jump-start Navy in the second half, Army came right back with a six-play, 74-yard drive, with the country's lowest-ranked passing team scoring on a 25-yard completion from Trent Steelman to Malcolm Brown.
"Neither team could stop the other," Niumatalolo said.
There was a moment in the fourth quarter when it seemed as if the Midshipmen would relive some of the late-game nightmares from earlier this season. Before both of Teague's field goals, the offense had stalled in or near the red zone as it had in several of the narrow losses.
Then the defense, which had been trampled early in the season before gaining respectability, appeared to tire as the nation's No. 1 rushing team drove from its own 23 to the Navy 24 with a little over seven minutes remaining. That when Navy's defense stiffened.
With defensive coordinator Buddy Green twice calling blitzes, Navy linebacker Matt Warrick sacked Steelman for a 5-yard loss on a second-and-6. Two plays later, on fourth-and-7, Warrick brought Steelman down for a 1-yard loss.
"Buddy made two great calls," said Warrick, who led the Midshipmen with nine tackles. "It was like he was in their huddle."
Niumatalolo wasn't even looking.
"I was praying," he said.
It took one last call to seal the game for Navy. Failing to convert on a third-and-1 from their own 48 with a little over two minutes left, the Midshipmen went for it on fourth down. Proctor got freshman tackle Jacob Drozd to jump offside.
"In my wildest dreams I didn't think we'd get that. I was just taking a chance," said Niumatalolo, who admitted that he would have called a timeout had Drozd not moved across the line of scrimmage.
Navy couldn't run out the clock and punted, but Army got the ball back with only two seconds left at its own 10-yard line. There was no miracle finish for the Black Knights, as the Brigade of Midshipmen in the crowd chanted "10 more years, 10 more years."
Said Proctor: "We're not playing in a bowl game this year, but we are playing in a bowl game [against Army]. To win 10 games in a row is unheard of."
Niumatalolo knows that the winning streak will likely not go on for another decade.
"Every time we play them from now on, those games are going to be battles," said Niumatalolo, who has been the head coach or an assistant on the nine previous Navy teams that won by an average of more than 25 points a game.
Said third-year Army coach Rich Ellerson: "An inch is a mile. I know we're competitive, but I felt that way last year. We played those guys tooth and nail. I think [the games] are competitive, don't get me wrong. But that's not the same as saying you're winning."
Navy is all too familiar with that feeling. The Midshipmen had a season filled with similar frustration before Navy's first losing season in nearly a decade was forgotten in a sloppy but satisfying win.
Notes: Before the Navy team left Saturday morning from the hotel where it stayed Friday night, sophomore defensive end Jamel Dobbs had a seizure, according to deputy director of athletics Eric Ruden. Dobbs was taken to George Washington University Hospital in Washington where Ruden said he remains in intensive care while undergoing tests to determine what caused the seizure.