WEST POINT, N.Y. — For the better part of the past two decades, Navy fielded one of the most feared rushing attacks in college football. Just last season, the Midshipmen set a single-season school record for rushing yards (4,687) while leading the nation in that category for the sixth time since 2003.
On a dark, overcast and extremely foggy day at West Point, a nationwide audience watched a dysfunctional Navy offense get shutout in a 15-0 loss to archrival Army. College football fans accustomed to seeing the Midshipmen’s triple-option pile up the yards and points while chewing up the clock were wondering what in the world has happened.
Freshman quarterback Xavier Arline directed an attack that could not get out of its way all game at Michie Stadium. Save for one big gain, it was ugly from start to finish as the Midshipmen (3-7) were limited to four first downs and 117 total yards — one of the worst offensive performances in program history.
“There’s not really much to say. We only had four first downs the whole game,” Navy senior fullback Nelson Smith said. “We couldn’t move the ball, couldn’t get it into the end zone. Not much else to say.”
It was the fewest yards Navy has amassed since being held to 82 by Connecticut in November 2002.
Inside linebacker Arik Smith and end Amadeo West notched nine tackles apiece to lead a strong defensive effort as Army shut out Navy for the first time since 1969 when it won 27-0.
Navy’s only scoring opportunity came early in the second half after Arline broke loose on a 53-yard run to set up first-and-goal from the 2-yard line. However, Army’s defense mounted an impressive goal-line stand that produced a turnover on downs and the visitors never threatened again.
Arline, making his third career start, was the entire Navy offense and finished with 109 rushing yards. Smith was the only other ball-carrier to post positive yardage — gaining 23 yards on 11 carries.
Sophomore quarterback Tyhier Tyler rushed for 96 yards and a touchdown to lead Army (8-2), which has won four of the past five meetings with the Mids. Tyler set up a field goal with a 28-yard pass to slotback Tyrell Robinson.
Army can capture the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy championship for the third time since 2017 by beating Air Force next Saturday at Michie Stadium.
A source within the Navy athletic department said Navy needed to beat Army in order to be considered for a berth in the Military Bowl. Now the Midshipmen are not expected to be offered a postseason invitation.
Navy’s offensive futility wasted yet another outstanding effort by the defense, which held Army to eight first downs and 162 total yards. Defensive end J’arius Warren recorded a career-high 14 tackles (two for loss), while outside linebackers John Marshall and Nicholas Straw notched 10 apiece.
Navy’s triple-option sputtered throughout the season and reached rock bottom down the stretch. The Midshipmen only scored 13 points over the final three games.
“The last three games have looked the same. We played great on defense, but we could not move the ball. You’re not going to beat anybody with zero points,” Coach Ken Niumatalolo said. “That’s three straight weeks when the defense played really well and we laid an egg on offense. Obviously, you can’t win scoring seven, six and zero points.”
A pair of Navy penalties helped Army strike first. The Midshipmen faced third-and-2 at their own 31-yard line when a slotback was whistled for false start, spoiling the drive and forcing a punt.
Navy was subsequently flagged for interfering with Robinson as he fielded the punt and that 15-yard infraction set up Army in enemy territory.
Outside linebacker Nicholas Straw bit on play-action fake and that allowed Robinson to get wide-open off a wheel route. Tyler delivered a perfect strike and the 28-yard gain put the Black Knights in the red zone.
Navy’s defense rose to the occasion with Warren dropping Tyler for a loss on third down. Quinn Maretzki came on to kick a 37-yard field goal to give the Black Knights (8-2) a 3-0 lead at the 12:41 mark of the second quarter.
Navy went three-and-out on its next two possessions and that enabled Army to gain an advantage in field position. The Black Knights got the ball in Midshipmen territory following another short punt by Daniel Davies and that led to another field-goal attempt.
This time, Maretzki was thrown off his routine because the holder bobbled the snap and a 38-yard attempt went wide left.
Navy went three-and-out for the fourth straight possession and the half ended with Army leading 3-0. To call the first half a defensive struggle would be an understatement. Navy only managed two first downs on 52 rushing yards, while Army picked up just three first downs on 80 total yards (52 rushing, 28 receiving).
The Midshipmen got the ball to start the second half and Arline broke loose on second down. Working out of shotgun formation, Arline followed the fullback into a huge hole on the right side and burst past the second level. He made a sharp cutback to juke free safety Cedrick Cunningham, who did not give up on the play.
Cunningham chased down Arline from behind and tripped him up just short of the goal line. Arline tried to stretch the ball into the end zone, but a replay review showed his knee touched at the 2-yard line.
No matter. It set up first-and-goal and surely Navy could pick up 2 yards on three plays. It turns out the Midshipmen were unable to do so on four plays.
Smith picked up a yard plowing straight ahead on first down. Instead of sending Smith north-south again, the play call sent him east-west. Smith took a pitchout and was quickly swarmed by multiple defenders, losing a yard.
Arline kept on third down and seemed to have a clear path into the end zone, but he was wrapped up by linebacker Jon Rhattigan and a replay review showed his knee touched before falling into the end zone. That set up fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line and Niumatalolo chose to go for the touchdown instead of sending kicker Bijan Nichols out to attempt a chip-shot field goal to tie the score.
Smith got the call again and followed left guard Billy Honaker, who got a little push. Senior end Amadeo West led the Army’s charge as Smith was stacked up by the defense and officials ruled the 213-pound senior fullback was stopped short.
“That was huge. In a defensive struggle, you have to convert there. Over the years, we’ve been really good in the red zone,” Niumatalolo said. “Where the ball was at, we are a rushing team. It was on the inches line. I felt like we had to go for it.”
Arline, who was just the fifth freshman to start at quarterback for Navy against Army, took the blame for not scoring on the long run then being unable to score on four attempts from the two.
“We have to be able to finish drives. We’ve had trouble doing that throughout this season,” Arline said. “Speaking for myself, there’s no excuse why we couldn’t get into the end zone. It’s unacceptable. The ball was put in my hands to get one yard and I couldn’t.”
As was the case all game, Navy’s defense forced a three-and-out and Army was forced to punt from its own end zone. Zach Harding made one of the most important plays of the game, booming a 48-yard punt that prevented Navy from flipping the field position.
The Midshipmen made sure of it by going three-and-out on their next two possessions. However, the defense continued to keep Navy in the game by forcing Army to punt the ball back both times.
Navy was pinned deep in its own territory the entire game and that eventually caught up with the visitors. On first down from their own 15-yard line, the Midshipmen called an option play with Arline pitching to slotback CJ Williams.
Williams could not catch the ball and Rhattigan recovered the fumble at the 13-yard line. Six plays later, Tyler took a keeper straight up the middle and waltzed untouched into the end zone for a 4-yard scoring run that increased the lead to 10-0 with 11:02 remaining.
Things just got worse for Navy on the next possession as a trick play went awry. Wide receiver Mark Walker took a double reverse and unwisely retreated into his own end zone when confronted by linebacker Daryan McDonald.
McDonald was not about to let Walker get away, dropping him for a safety that made it 12-0. Maretzki tacked on a 40-yard field goal late to account for the final margin.