PHILADELPHIA — The Navy Midshipmen had already engineered a dramatic year-over-year turnaround when they arrived at Lincoln Financial Field on Saturday, which would probably be enough for any other major college football program to declare the season a huge success.
Of course, we all know that there could be no such thing unless the Mids prevailed over Army in the 120th edition of “America’s Game.” After last year’s 3-10 collapse, they simply could not allow the Black Knights to rear-end their renaissance.
So, quarterback Malcolm Perry did a terrific impression of Lamar Jackson and the Mids ended Army’s recent domination of the rivalry to take home the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy for the first time since 2015.
Perry was as otherworldly on this day as Jackson or any of the quarterbacks at the Heisman ceremony later on Saturday night. He rushed for 304 yards to set a single-game rivalry high and wrote his name all over Navy’s record book in a game that was only in doubt until halftime.
If he was happy for his own magic moment in front of one of the largest national television audiences of the year, Perry kept that to himself.
“For me personally, this is the biggest game I’ve ever played in my life,'' Perry said. "We didn’t win the last three games (against Army), but that makes this win even more sweet and I’m happy we got the win.
“Getting the 'W', I don’t think there’s a greater feeling that I’ve known so far, so I’m just happy about that. Happy the way the guys on offense executed. The defense executed really well. I’m just happy to get the win.”
Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo said after the game that Perry “from a running standpoint, he’s the greatest running back that I’ve coached at the Academy.''
But you’re not going to hear that from Perry, even after he set a record for most rushing yards in an Army-Navy game (304), and school records for most consecutive 100-yard rushing games (nine) and most 100-yard games in a season (10), among others.
“He’s the most humble kid,” Niumatalolo said. “Here’s a guy that’s rushed for a 1,000 yards three straight years and you would think he’s a walk-on the way he carries himself. But that’s our team. We’re a team of humble kids who work hard. Happy for our team, but I feel most proud that our guys have done it the right way.”
How sweet that has to be for all the Navy seniors, who otherwise would have gone off to serve their military commitments never having won the only game that really matters. In fact, it would have been the only senior class to go winless in the series during this century.
That this would even be an issue is a testament to the consistency of the Navy program during the Paul Johnson/Ken Niumatalolo era. The Midshipmen have only had two losing seasons since Johnson turned around the program in 2003 and have averaged eight wins per year since then.
Athletic Director Chet Gladchuk said Saturday that there is only one way to account for that consistent level of success considering the challenges the military academies face trying to recruit against big programs with lesser entrance requirements.
"Stability,'' Gladchuk said before the game. “We had a bad year last year and we just readjusted or recalibrated what we like to do. The program wasn’t in the tank. We didn’t lose any ground. Only the record and of course we had some tough games on Saturday. We made the adjustments we needed to make and here we are back at 9-2.”
Make that 10-2 with a chance to improve on that on New Year’s Eve when Navy faces Kansas State in the Liberty Bowl.
In the context of academy football, this has been Navy’s century. The Mids have won the CIC Trophy 11 times. They have beaten Army 15 times in 19 meetings, which explains why it wasn’t hard to stay the course during the three-year drought.
"The program has been stable for 18 years, if you look at the record overall,'' Gladchuk said. “The foundation of this program is solid as a rock and perfectly in the context of Navy, it’s as good as it possibly can be — the conference affiliation and everything else.”
Niumatalolo said after the game that the 2019 turnaround dates back a lot farther than the lop-sided season opening victory over Holy Cross.
”This didn’t happen today,'' he said. “This happened back in January, with our senior leadership and their commitment to be successful. I’m just so proud of them and I’m happy for them.”
NAVY VS. KANSAS STATE
Dec. 31, 3:45 p.m.
TV: ESPN Radio: 1090 AM