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Army's first win over Navy in 15 years good for historic football rivalry

The entire Army Corps of Cadets streamed onto the field at M&T Bank Stadium early Saturday evening, their joy unrestrained.

And why not?

It had been so long since Army had beaten Navy in one of college football's greatest rivalries that many of those cadets were toddlers the last time it happened.

Through 14 straight defeats, the Black Knights had to wonder if they would ever catch up with a Navy program that had climbed to a level of national recognition that Army could only dream about. Navy had taken total control of the historic rivalry soon after it entered its second century.

That domination was so complete that Army coach Jeff Monken had reached the point where he conceded following his team's 21-17 victory that it wasn't really a rivalry anymore.

"You've got to win sometimes," he said.

Indeed, it was getting monotonous and anyone without a rooting interest in either team would probably agree that it was high time Army got back on the board for the good of all who treasure this grand tradition.

The likelihood of that happening this year seemed fairly remote as recently as eight days ago, back when the Mids were savoring their American Athletic Conference division title and seemed to be cruising through one of their more impressive seasons in recent memory.

Senior quarterback Will Worth had taken over for injured starter Tago Smith in the season opener and delivered a record offensive season to rival the heroics of 2015 Heisman Trophy candidate Keenan Reynolds.

But that was before one play in the second quarter of the AAC title game against Temple knocked Worth and Navy co-captain Toneo Gulley out for the remainder of the season, and threw both the Army game and the upcoming Armed Forces Bowl into serious doubt.

The Mids had made a smooth transition from Smith to Worth, but that was from one senior quarterback to another. This time, coach Ken Niumatalolo and his staff had to get sophomore quarterback Zach Abey ready for what is always considered the biggest game of the season for both academies.

Throw in the fact that the game was going to be played just minutes from where Abey starred at Archbishop Spalding High School and before a sellout crowd that included president-elect Donald Trump.

If ever Army was going to be in a position to reclaim a piece of the rivalry, this was the moment. And it looked like it might be easy after the Mids started turning the ball over and the Knights took an early 14-0 lead.

Turned out, it wasn't easy at all. The Mids regained their composure in the second half and came back to take the lead in the fourth quarter when Abey broke away on a 41-yard touchdown run that threatened to send all those cadets on another disappointing bus ride back to New York.

Instead, Army mounted a final drive that spanned 12 plays and nearly seven minutes before junior quarterback Ahmad Bradshaw wriggled through the Navy defense on a game-winning 9-yard touchdown run.

"When they took the lead, 17-14, that's the time when you could look around and maybe some teams got that look in their eye of doubt or concern," Monken said, "and I think our guys just knuckled down and were determined that they were going to win. And that was the effort I thought they gave there in the fourth quarter — just a great drive to take the lead again and get that last score."

Maybe the Mids could curse their fates after losing Worth, Gulley and two other key players during the Temple game, but Niumatalolo would have none of it.

"It is what it is," he said. "They weren't going to postpone the game. We knew coming into the conference championship game that we would have only a week to prepare. You don't expect to get that many guys hurt. It is football. We're not going to use that as an excuse. They outplayed us. Just tip your hat to them."

peter.schmuck@baltsun.com

twitter.com/SchmuckStop

Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.

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