One Battle, Many Wars

Well, gee. The whole college football world was ready to embrace another tense, taut tilt between Army and Navy, another down-to-the-wire battle in a series that, aside of being America's most honorable and dignified rivalry game, has also been a terrifically exciting and close affair.

And while many observers knew Navy had an explosive offense, Army had also contained Chance Harridge and Air Force's lethal ground game just one month earlier (it was big downfield pass plays and gadget plays that cooked the Black Knights against Air Force). Moreover, the Cadets had bottled up Tulane to the tune of a 14-10 win the week after the Air Force contest. An Army defense, given a bye week, seemed ready to turn the corner, or—if you prefer a different spin on that analysis, or a different analysis altogether—seemed ready to defy low expectations and play a typically tough game against Navy's option. The game figured to be competitive.

Right?

As an Army fan, you definitely thought this game would be competitive; as a Navy fan, while optimistic, you wouldn't in your wildest dreams have envisioned what took place on Saturday in the New Jersey Meadowlands.

But it happened. Oh, it happened. 

A rushing yard advantage of 421 to 56 happened. A score of 58 to 12 happened. 

A mighty conquest on the part of a 1-10 team from Annapolis happened over another 1-10 team from West Point. 

A Long Gray Line of defenders that seemed to be a fair match for the Brigade of Blueshirts became a bunch of wounded soldiers. When the ball was teed off on Saturday, with a whole world listening on Armed Forces Radio, everything about the sun-kissed afternoon smelled of a competitive game. Instead, Navy competed with—and defeated—not just Army, but the history books, scoring more points in a single Army-Navy game than any team before, even the 1945 and '46 Army teams with Doc Blanchard and Glenn Davis; even more than the '58 Army squad under Pete Dawkins; and even more than the Navy teams of the 1960s that sported Joe Bellino and Roger Staubach.

Plucky Craig Candeto just inserted his name into the annals of this larger-than-life game, running for six touchdowns and accounting for a seventh with a pass. In service academy life, where football—like everything else—breathes and exudes a living history whose ghosts never fade away, Candeto firmly planted his identity into the timeless history of this American classic. He did so much to the joy of the Brigade, and to the shocked silence of the Cadets in attendance.

Forty-eight hours after the Midshipmen's conquest, one's mouth is still ajar at the events that took place in Jersey, events that made you think Tony Soprano did some uhhhh…. Errrr….. ahhhh….. "scouting" for Navy during the week. How else to explain why the team with the billy goat became the team with the billy club?

If you want to spin this game from a Navy perspective, it's pretty easy to do so on the merits alone. Not only is the 46-point throttling of Your Only Real Rival a source of joy to be savored for the next 364 days (or at least until duty calls for your country—let's hope it won't have to happen), but the future of Midshipmen Football under the brilliant and creative mind of coach Paul Johnson seems bright. 

Johnson knows how to put wrinkles into the running game better than most coaches in college football. His play-calling flair, and more importantly, his aggressiveness (which abandoned the Middies in the fourth quarter against Notre Dame, but were otherwise present throughout the year) have his first-year program in good stead for 2003, when a sophomore coaching season should yield more results, more improvement, and more wins. One can definitely see this team making big strides toward .500 next year, and reaching the break-even mark in 2004. The good ship Navy Football seems on its way.

As for Army, it would be pretty darn hollow and intellectually dishonest to try and spin this very game, this specific result, in any positive way. Controversy and doubt are swirling around both head coach Todd Berry and the program itself, whose viability within the framework of Conference USA is being questioned by everyone in the college football world. 

One can only hope that the many learning experiences this team experienced in 2002 will translate into improvement in 2003. This team can defend the run, can make plays on offense, but—as is so often the case for a college football team still learning how to win—can never put together both pieces to the puzzle in the same game. Either the run defense takes its holiday while the offense succeeds, or the other way around. Or, if both of those dimensions of the Black Knights had good games, such as against Air Force, the defense loses focus on five or six isolated plays that go for or set up touchdowns. It's all about getting both the run defense and the pass offense to click in the same game. That is the pathway to success for Army in 2003.

The best way to spin this result if you're an Army fan is on an historical level. It's impossible to be part of this game and not embrace history in general; what military people don't embrace history? You have to be a student of history to be a good soldier, right? Therefore, if you know your history, you know—as a Cadet or as a Middie—that Army has consistently won the close games in this series.

Therefore, if you know and love your Army football, you can take a perverse but genuine sense of pleasure in reaction to Saturday's bloodbath. Precisely because military might and manhood are fully and authentically determined by actions in the heat of intense battle, with the outcome of a skirmish depending on your decisions, Army people can take pride in the fact that they've won the really close ones in this series. I'm sure that generations of West Point Footballers are dulling the pain of Saturday right now by saying the following:

"Hey, fellow Cadets, if Navy had taken the 46 points it had won by and sprinkled them around over the past decade, we would be looking at a 10-game losing streak right now. But no, the brave Army team fought through adversity time and again in the 90s, and therefore, in the long march of history, this 46-point game will ring hollow, because we've won when the going got tough; we won when the outcome was in doubt. We who live near the Hudson River confronted the possibility of defeat and still produced victory in the midst of adversity. Those Navy sailors coasted to a few wins where they wouldn't be stopped, but we, we Army folks captured wins—many more wins than Navy, in recent years—out of the heat and chaos of desperate battles that could have gone either way. This rout only makes all those wins—wins we got to see on ESPN Classic all last week—so much sweeter. Fight on, brave Army team! It will be close next year, and we all know what happens in close ones, heh, heh!"

In the end, then, this was one battle amidst many wars in the Army-Navy Game. The beauty for Army is how this 58-12 game makes the 1990s even sweeter, if that's humanly possible (because boy, they were really sweet to begin with…). But the beauty for Navy is how this rout makes the future so much more promising.

Army can take even greater comfort in knowing how well it succeeded in the past.

Navy can take strength, even in the midst of a 2-10 season, from winning this puppy and also knowing that the future is bright under Paul Johnson.

But for now, in the present time, ignore the past and future alike by tipping your cap—whether a ground troop or a sailor—to Craig Candeto, who owned this day in the life of America's most storied college football rivalry.


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