If this is what happens when Navy only has one week to prepare for Army, everyone associated with the program probably hopes it never happens again.
Head coach Ken Niumatalolo was confident the coaching staff had a plan in place for the possibility of the Midshipmen appearing in the American Athletic Conference championship just seven days before the biggest game of the year.
That plan clearly did not work out so well as Navy looked completely out of sorts during a disastrous first half. The Midshipmen pulled things together somewhat in the second half, but could not overcome a two touchdown deficit and lost to the Black Knights for the first time since 2001.
Fullbacks Kell Walker and Andy Davidson combined to rush for 181 yards as Army beat Navy, 21-17, bringing an end to its historic 14-game losing streak in the series in front of a sellout crowd of 71,600 at M&T Bank Stadium.
“We heard for a long time here at West Point about the streak and all that,” Army head coach Jeff Monken said. “It feels good to be a part of the team that kind of put that to an end. Interestingly enough, I was in the other locker room when the streak started. So I’m really proud to be on this team to see the streak come to an end.”
Quarterback Ahmad Bradshaw did an outstanding job of directing Army’s version of the triple-option and led the designated home team on a 12-play, 80-yard drive that produced the go-ahead touchdown with six minutes remaining.
No. 25 Navy could not pick up a first down on the ensuing possession and elected to punt with just over four minutes remaining. Army was able to salt away the remaining time and the Corps of Cadets along with a large contingent of fans stormed the field in wild celebration as the final seconds ticked away.
“First of all, hat’s off to Coach Monken and Army West Point. They outplayed us and outcoached us. Give them all the credit,” Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo said. “Right now, the magnitude of losing this game is pretty tough. I really hurt for our guys.”
Walker ran for a game-high 94 yards while working as both a fullback and a slotback. Davidson did most of his damage between the tackles in running for 87 yards and two touchdowns for Army (7-5), which dominated the time of possession to the tune of 40:32 to 19:28.
Bradshaw was on point in terms of reading the defense and distributing the ball as Black Knights amassed 351 total yards and 23 first downs. By contrast, the Midshipmen managed only 201 total yards and eight first downs.
Sophomore quarterback Zach Abey struggled initially in his first career start, throwing two interceptions in the forgettable first half. The Archbishop Spalding product performed much better in the second half and wound up rushing for 73 yards and two touchdowns. The Pasadena resident completed 6 of 10 passes for 89 yards.
“It’s a big game, a big stage for Zach. I thought he settled down much better in the second half,” Niumatalolo said. “I was proud of the way Zach bounced back. That’s a pretty stressful game and he played a lot better in the second half.”
Navy scrapped its patented triple-option offense in favor of the read-option, a decision made by Niumatalolo at the beginning of the season. That scheme took the slots completely out of the game as fullbacks Shawn White (22 yards) and Chris High (17 yards) were the only players other than Abey to carry the ball. The Midshipmen managed only 112 rushing yards, a whopping 215 below their season average.
“I thought early on it was working the way we thought it would,” Niumatalolo said of the read-option, which Navy did out of the shotgun formation. “We only ran 36 plays. I can’t ever remember running just 36 plays. We just didn’t have the ball enough to get things going.”
Ultimately, Niumatalolo will be second-guessed for his decision to punt the ball with just over four minutes remaining. The Midshipmen faced fourth-and-four from their own 40-yard line and the ninth-year head coach counted on the defense getting a quick stop, which did not happen.
“I just thought four yards was a little too far. We hadn’t been running the ball very well the whole game,” Niumatalolo said. “Maybe if it was a little closer I might have gone for it. If we don’t get it, the game is over.”
Slotback Tyler Campbell picked up the first crucial first down with an 11-yard run. Navy called timeout with 1:49 left and Army facing third-and-one. Bradshaw plowed ahead for two yards and that allowed the Black Knights to take a knee three times to kill the remaining minute plus.
“I mean, it sucks. I’m not going to sugarcoat it. You never want to be the team that loses the streak, so it really hurts,” Navy senior wide receiver Jamir Tillman said of watching Army sing its alma mater second.
“There’s nobody on the team that wanted this more than me, but it’s not the end of the world. We’re going to pick ourselves up and get back to the grind. We have one more game to prove that we’re not going to end our season with a loss.”
Navy (9-4) will close out its season by playing Louisiana Tech in the Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl, being held Dec. 23 in Fort Worth, Texas.
“It definitely hurts, especially as a senior,” Navy defensive end Amos Mason said. “As much as this sucks, we have another game and we have to push on.”
Navy got the ball to start the game and Abey went under center on first down. However, the sophomore then backed up and operated out of shotgun on second down as the Midshipmen unveiled the read-option.
Army seemed surprise by the new look and fullback Chris High gained 10 yards on third down to bring the ball just shy of midfield. Two plays later, backup fullback Shawn White found another big hole and rambled 11 yards into Army territory, but fumbled after being hit.
White was not carrying the ball high and tight like the coaching staff teaches and strong safety Xavier Moss knocked it loose with his helmet. Free safety Rhyan England recovered and a promising drive to start the game became a deflating turnover for the Mids.
“That turnover really killed us. We had them reeling a bit and that could have been a huge drive for us,” Niumatalolo said of missing an opportunity to score a touchdown on the game’s opening possession.
Davidson did most of the damage on fullback dives up the middle as Army mounted a 66-yard touchdown drive that lasted 14 plays and took 7:39 off the clock. Davidson plowed over from the 1-yard line to give the Black Knights a 7-0 lead with 4:23 remaining in the second quarter.
Offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper called for play-action pass to start Navy’s second possession and Abey unwisely tried to force the ball to intended target Jamir Tillman, who was well covered. Moss looked like a center fielder waiting for a fly out as he easily intercepted the overthrow.
“I take a lot of responsibility for this game. Obviously, in the first half I made a lot of bad decisions,” Abey said. “I feel horrible for the seniors. I told them before the game that I would give my all for them. I feel bad because I wish I could have gotten the win for them.”
Army drove into Navy territory on its second possession, but safety Sean Williams put an end to that by leaping high to pick off a pass that Bradshaw should not have thrown. Navy could not capitalize on the turnover, going three-and-out with Abey carrying the ball on all three downs.
Punter Alex Barta certainly didn’t help the cause by shanking a 15-yarder out of bounds, setting the Black Knights up at the 46-yard line of the Mids.
Bradshaw directed the triple-option to perfection as Army ripped off big gains both inside and outside in marching downfield with relative ease for another touchdown. Walker had an 11-yard run on third-and-three to set up another 1-yard scoring plunge by Davidson to increase the lead to 14-0 at the 7:12 mark of the second quarter.
Navy’s offensive woes continued for the rest of the half as a sack of Abey led to another three-and-out on the third possession while another errant throw by the sophomore quarterback resulted in a second interception. Slotback Calvin Cass Jr. was open downfield, but Abey sailed a throw way over his head and into the waiting arms of England.
“We all wish we could have that first half back, especially me. I think we all made our little mistakes in the first half, both sides of the ball,” Abey said. “I think we came out in the second half and played our hearts out. We were down and knew what we had to do to get back in it.”
Not surprisingly, the halftime stats were overwhelmingly in favor of Army, which picked up more first downs (14) than Navy ran plays (13). The Black Knights had 182 total yards compared to 49 for the Mids and dominated time of possession, 22:32 to 7:28.
Navy needed to find some way to turn things around early in the second half and a fumble by Bradshaw was just what the doctor ordered. Cornerback Jarid Ryan forced the fumble with a hard hit on Bradshaw and safety Sean Williams recovered at the Army 32-yard line.
An extremely short field was exactly what the offense needed and Jasper made a terrific call on third-and-five. White started to block a linebacker then slipped out for a screen pass that was perfectly delivered by Abey.
White had plenty of running room and barreled 16 yards to the 11. The 6-foot-1, 255-pound bruiser then powered up the middle for seven yards to set up a 1-yard touchdown run by Abey that finally put the Mids on the board and made it 14-7 at the 11:23 mark of the third period.
All of a sudden, it was Army that could not get anything done on offense. The Black Knights went three-and-out on their second possession of the second half and fumbled again on the third. That enabled Navy to score 10 straight points and take its first lead.
Abey rolled out left then turned and found wide receiver Brandon Colon all alone along the right sideline for a completion that picked up 29 yards. A 9-yard pass to Tillman brought the ball to the Army 20, but the drive stalled and the Mids settled for a 28-yard field goal by Bennett Moehring that made it 14-10 with 3:59 remaining in the third quarter.
It appeared Army would answer when it marched into Navy territory, but freshman nose guard Jackson Pittman punched the ball away from Davidson and Williams pounced on his second fumble recovery of the game.
An exchange of punts gave Navy the ball just shy of midfield and Abey completed a short pass to Tillman for a 12-yard gain on first down. Abey then took an option keeper 41 yards for a touchdown, making a handful of defenders miss along the way. The 6-foot-2, 218-pounder shrugged off a high tackle attempt at the line of scrimmage then cut back across the grain and ran through several arm tackles in winding his way to the end zone.
Just like that, Navy had its first lead of the game — 17-14 at the 12:42 mark of the fourth quarter and one could almost see a sense of dread come over the faces of Army fans in attendance.
However, Army responded to the sudden deficit by delivering the drive that has been 15 years in the making. Bradshaw got things going by completing a 29-yard pass to wide receiver Edgar Poe. It was the first completion of the game for the Black Knights and couldn’t have come at a better time.
“You have to give them credit — nice protection, nice throw. We know when they throw it they’re going to Edgar. Give that kid credit for running a nice route and making a big play,” Niumatalolo said. “I think that play kind of took some wind out of our sails. That pass play took the momentum right back.”
As it had all game, Army ground it out from there — gradually moving the ball downfield on what would become a 12-play, 80-yard drive that salted away almost seven minutes. A well-executed shovel pass to fullback Joe Walker picked up seven yards and set up fourth-and-one at the Navy 17. Not surprisingly, Davidson got the ball for the crucial conversion and bulled his way forward for 6 yards.
Two plays later, Bradshaw took an option keeper to the right side then made a sharp cut upfield and scored on a 9-yard run to put Army back ahead, 21-17 with six minutes remaining.
Navy took over at its own 34-yard line with 5:54 remaining and needed Abey to direct a game-winning touchdown drive. Things did not start off well as Abey dropped back to pass and was swarmed under by linebackers Alex Aukerman and Jeremy Timpf for a 9-yard loss.
Abey completed an 11-yard pass in the flat to White, leaving the Mids five yards short of a first down. A give to the fullback may not have been the best call in that situation as White gained only one yard. Facing fourth-and-four from his own 40-yard line, Niumatalolo elected to punt with just 4:07 to go. That strategy backfired after Army picked up two first downs then took a knee three times to salt away the final minute.