PHILADELPHIA — Army-Navy is always about moments that go beyond the actual playing of a college football game, even one as melodramatic as Saturday’s was in a snowstorm at Lincoln Financial Field.
The two most-memorable football moments will be Army quarterback Ahmad Bradshaw squeezing into the end zone with 5:10 left for what proved to be the winning touchdown and Bennett Moehring’s 48-yard field goal attempt veering wide left as the cannons went off to signal the end of the game.
Army 14, Navy 13.
The score tells the story of a remarkable game, one in which neither team committed a turnover despite brutal weather. For a long time, it looked as if Navy quarterback Malcolm Perry — who rushed for 250 yards and a touchdown on 30 carries — would be the story of the long day’s journey into a wintry night.
But in the end, as the jubilant Army players exchanged hugs with the devastated Navy players, it was about more than the final score, more even than Army finally winning the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy for the first time in 21 years and Navy going home empty-handed after coming so achingly close to reclaiming the trophy after a one-year absence.
Beyond that, it was about Army’s players lining up one by one before the playing of the alma maters to tell Perry what a remarkable player he is. It was about Scott Swanson, who has been Army’s strength coach for the past 20 seasons, leaning forward as the Navy band began to play “Navy Blue and Gold” to tap Black Knights freshman Camden Harrison on the head to tell him to remove his stocking cap. Swanson didn’t have to say a word. Harrison understood right away: Regardless of weather, no one wears anything on their head when the alma maters are played.
It also was about the jubilant Army locker room, where Coach Jeff Monken, who has made Army football matter again, presented the game ball to U.S. Military Academy Superintendent Robert L. Caslen, who is retiring at the end of the school year.
Caslen was a 185-pound center for Army while he was a cadet and is about as hard-nosed as anyone you will meet in life. And yet, seconds earlier, he had stood on a stool and told the players he planned to hang the 170-pound CIC trophy on the front of his car Sunday for the drive up the New Jersey Turnpike back to West Point.
He was smiling — almost — when he said it, but he was clearly a bit choked up when Monken handed him the game ball. There might have even been just a tiny little teardrop in the corner of one of his eyes.
The most important thing about the four years since Monken’s arrival is that Army-Navy has become a roller coaster again. The Midshipmen were good enough to hang on the first two years — earning 17-10 and 21-17 victories — but the Black Knights were able to score late last December to win, 21-17, and end the 14-game streak in the series that haunted the plain at West Point. They did it again Saturday, scoring late, then hanging on for dear life during Navy’s desperate final drive.
“We were tougher than they were at the end,” Bradshaw told his teammates when Monken broke precedent and allowed a player to talk amid all the speeches by the Army brass. “This game is about being the tougher team.”
For a while, toughness had very little to do with the outcome of these games. Talent did. Navy was just better, year in and year out. The Mids’ average margin of victory during the streak was 29 points. Only twice did Navy fail to win by double digits. There were scores such as 58-12, 34-6, 42-13, 38-3 and 34-0.
Although the Mids enjoyed and savored each of those victories, everyone knew that’s not what Army-Navy is supposed to be about.
“I won’t feel this way tomorrow, but sitting here now, I know the rivalry needs an Army win,” Roger Staubach, arguably the greatest Midshipmen football player of them all, said the day before the game three years ago. “I know the streak needs to end. I just would rather it not be now.”
When Boo Corrigan became the athletic director at West Point seven years ago, he knew he had an uphill battle to make the football team competitive with Navy and Air Force.
As the Army players hoisted the CIC onto a table Saturday, Corrigan shook his head when someone asked whether there were moments when he wondered whether he would ever see the trophy in the Army locker room.
“There were a lot of late nights when I wondered,” he said. “We were just so far behind Navy and Air Force. We just weren’t competitive with them for a long time.”
Monken’s hiring changed that. The Black Knights went to Air Force in November and not only beat the Falcons for the third time this century but shut them out for the first time in 52 meetings. On Saturday, they backed up last season’s win over Navy by doing it again.
It was anything but easy.
The Mids led 10-7 at halftime, and when Perry, who had scored on a breathtaking 68-yard run in the second quarter to give his team the lead, took off on another sprint through the Army defense midway through the third quarter, it looked like the lead would balloon to two scores.
In this game, on this field, a two-score margin might have been insurmountable.
But Perry slipped just a tiny bit on the frozen turf, and that allowed Army defensive captain John Voit — a lineman — to catch him at the 11-yard line after a 46-yard gain. Army’s defense dug in at that point and got the stop it needed, forcing Navy to settle for Moehring’s 24-yard field goal that made it 13-7. Which was a lot different from 17-7.
Army’s offense then put together the winning drive, going 65 yards in 13 plays to Bradshaw’s one-yard push into the end zone. Navy didn’t have an ounce of quit in it and had the ball on the Army 25-yard line after Perry converted a fourth and one with a 12-yard sprint during which he slipped two Army tacklers.
But two penalties and an inspired defense pushed the Mids back just far enough so that Moehring’s kick stayed left. With the ball in the air, Corrigan, who admitted later he was trying not to look, yelled, ‘Oh s—,” because he thought the kick was good when it was in the air.
He wasn’t alone.
Then came the tears — on both sides: Army players crying for joy because they were so drained and relieved to have won the game, Navy players crying in disbelief because they were convinced they were going to win.
And there was Army assistant coach Mike Viti, a terrific fullback on bad Army teams during the losing streak, wrapping his arms around Perry as the Navy quarterback wept.
One more moment in a day that was full of them. Which is exactly the way Army-Navy is supposed to be every year.
For more by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/feinstein.