First things first: Losing to Navy -- singing first -- is always a gut punch. It never ceases to be anything less.
Moreover, it shouldn't be.
There's a reason why this rivalry game is special. There's a reason why this event -- normally held in Philadelphia, occasionally staged elsewhere -- matters so much to so many people.
There's a reason why this game is a "bucket-list" event for so many American sports fans and journalists.
There's a reason why this game resonates and inspires in ways no other sporting event ever can... or ever will.
Passion. Hunger. Hope. They all burn so brightly on Army-Navy Day. They're supposed to.
We all know the consequences of giving everything you have -- and then some -- in the pursuit of a goal: When you come up short, the pain stings. It lasts. It becomes embedded in one's bones and marrow. It never fully leaves once the scoreboard hits triple-zero and you have to sing first on national television.
The passion, the hope, the youthful enthusiasm of Army-Navy wouldn't stir the soul and create an unforgettable sports spectacle each and every year if the agony of defeat didn't linger in the personal and public memory. The emotions make the magic. They have enabled the sporting public to care about this game, even though it has long since ceased to have an impact on national championship races and major bowl games in college football. (Had Navy defeated Houston, though, it actually might have meant something on a larger level. That's another story for another day.)
Saturday's 21-17 loss to Navy hurts like heck for the Army Black Knights. A miserable losing streak, a reality which hangs over this program as a constant talking point, irritation, and very oppressive weight, will persist for another 52 weeks. It will be there in spring ball. It will loom in the summer. It will remain in September and October and November of next season. It hasn't been eradicated from the pages of time. Nothing about this loss can or should be downplayed. It's Army-Navy, the game which should never be downplayed. We can arrive at swift and unanimous agreement on that point.
And yet, this time, an Army loss to Navy feels so different compared to how it has in most of the previous 13 years.
Yes, Navy once again prevailed over Army. Ken Niumatalolo and Keenan Reynolds once again won this game. Yes, Navy again made fewer mistakes, all while Army committed the fourth-quarter turnovers which have previously devastated the Black Knights this century (save for 2001).
Yes, Army had chances to win this game in the final quarter... again. Yes, the Black Knights failed to be at their best when one or two good plays would have lifted them over the top... again. Yes, victory narrowly eluded Army's grasp on a day when the Black Knights largely outplayed Navy... again.
However, this time feels different.
Never before has an Army team left the field against Navy in the 21st century with so much optimism about the road ahead. Certainly on some levels and possibly on others, the Black Knights have legitimate reason to think that they not only could beat Navy next year, but that they WILL.
Chris Carter, the young quarterback who played three superb quarters before faltering in the fourth, made so many good reads and dazzling option pitches that it's hard to see how he won't acquire a larger place in this rivalry over the next few years. Carter made the kinds of mistakes you'd expect an underclassman to make. That he averaged just over 23 yards per completion and made Army's offense far more menacing than it had been throughout the course of this 13-game losing streak to Navy shows that the Black Knights have their trigger man under center. Army has found the quarterback who can lift this program to a greater height.
What was so noticeable about this performance from Jeff Monken's team is that it was explosive and potent, even though it was also erratic and ultimately unable to be sustained in the fourth quarter. Army needed to throw and land roundhouse punches to have a good chance at beating Navy. The Black Knights couldn't afford to nibble off two or three first downs and then punt from midfield or the Navy 40. They needed to be able to get the quick strike, and on four distinct occasions, they did that against the Midshipmen. Their two touchdown plays; the punt return by Edgar Poe; and the conversion of a third-and-20 situation all showed that the Black Knights could break free from the clutches of Navy's defense. That freedom didn't last for 60 whole minutes, but Saturday's first half was clearly the best half for an Army offense against Navy in the entire history of The Streak.A West Point offense has never been as formidable against Annapolis as it was in the opening 30 minutes on Saturday.
Let's put a finer point on that assertion: This was the best Army performance against Navy in the life of The Streak. The 2011 game was a game in which Navy committed multiple turnovers, and Army couldn't take advantage against the one Annapolis team since 2003 which has failed to make a bowl game. In 2012, Keenan Reynolds was a freshman; therefore, Army's inability to pounce represents a more noticeable shortcoming. The 2010 game was disappointing because it was authored by the best team of the Rich Ellerson era.
Given all the circumstances and pregame expectations, this was Army's best game against Navy since The Streak started in 2002. That might be little comfort to the Black Knights right now -- frankly, it shouldn't provide much comfort. However, when the 2016 Black Knights begin their season, they will know that as long as Chris Carter is healthy, they will have a great chance to beat Navy.
Carter will be on the field, and Reynolds will not. Possibly, Ken Niumatalolo will also not return for Navy. We'll just have to wait and see what his interview with BYU brings this week.
In 2016, Army should have the better quarterback than Navy will. You might not be able to say a whole lot about the advantages Army will possess over Navy next season, but that's going to be one of them, as long as Carter stays healthy.
By all means, losing to Navy is never fun, and hope -- when frustrated -- feels dangerous and cruel, even wasteful.
Yet, when the pain of this loss is more fully absorbed in the course of time, Army players, coaches and fans will be able to see that hope has never burned brighter for this program in the 21st century.
That's something to take away from a loss to Navy. It doesn't mean a whole lot now, but it could mean everything in 12 months.