To Err Is Human, To Air Is Divine
Everyone is understandably talking about "the fumble," the 98-yard Wyatt Middleton jog to joy and jubilation that turned this game 180 degrees in the opposite direction just before halftime and sent the Midshipmen on their way to a ninth straight win in this celebrated series. However, that event – as blessed as it was for Navy and coach Ken Niumatalolo – was more an Army failure than anything else. On a day when Navy once again had trouble protecting the pigskin – in a game that felt a lot like the Maryland season opener for much of the first half – the storyline which merits focus is that the Men of Ken had two ways of moving the football, while Army once again owned only one method of transportation.
Year after year in Philadelphia – or sometimes Baltimore – we see the same basic pattern emerge. Navy's offense might sputter and stutter at times, but Army gets stuck in the muck. Navy might slip up and mess up on occasion, but Army remains generally impotent throughout the entirety of a 60-minute pigskin passion play. Indeed, you have to have a very special rushing attack to outclass opponents if you can't pass the ball, and for yet another season, Army didn't have the ability to make Navy pay for crowding the tackle box. It was the Midshipmen who were quite literally armed with something more than their legs and their run blocking. The boys from Annapolis used the forward pass to beat Army and ensure that when "the fumble" landed in their lap, they already had a scoreboard advantage to supplement that game-turning sequence.
Yes, "the fumble" represented a 14-point net turnaround, but don't let the 31-17 score allow you to think that one play said everything that needed to be said about "Black Knights-Midshipmen, Part 111." It's worth noting that even if Army had scored a touchdown near the end of the first half, Navy still would have owned a 17-14 lead despite three Ricky Dobbs fumbles. That's remarkable in and of itself, and that's why Army can't say it would have won this game had it scored late in the second quarter. The game would have become much more competitive, but the Black Knights still would have had to deliver the goods in the second half. Given the way Navy's defense contained the West Pointers (with the exception of a few late and meaningless drives that were nothing more than window dressing), it's hard to make a case that Army would have won without "the fumble."
Just how did Navy create a 10-point cushion and ensure that it would have owned a halftime lead in spite of its many mistakes? The answer is simple yet decisive: the ability to once again unleash the big-play passing game against Army. Ivin Jasper knows how to push the right buttons, especially when a Rich Ellerson defense is bearing down on stopping Navy's flexbone attack. On Saturday in Philadelphia, Jasper found the jugular once again in the air. Dobbs put the ball on the ground three times in that uneven first half, so it was sweetly ironic that No. 4 was also able to take flight and forge a couple thunderbolts that scorched Army's secondary. The 77-yard touchdown strike to John Howell was arguably the best pass Dobbs has ever thrown in his distinguished collegiate career. The 32-yard scoring toss to Brandon Turner gave Navy the extra margin of error that would have come into play had "the fumble" not occurred. All in all, Navy was resourceful enough to once again use the forward pass to its advantage on a day when Army couldn't propel the pigskin through the cold Pennsylvania air.
The final stat sheet will tell you that Army quarterback Trent Steelman threw for 128 yards on 11 completions, but the (not-so) secret part of Steelman's stat line is that he totaled just 15 passing yards until Army's final drives, which were both waged under near-hopeless circumstances for the Black Knights… circumstances in which Buddy Green was all too happy to allow Army to dump the ball off for seven yards, short of the sticks, and in bounds, thereby draining precious time from the clock. Even if Army had scored a touchdown on its final red-zone foray to make the score 31-24, the Black Knights – with under 15 seconds left in the game – would not have had time to make another legitimate push at the Navy end zone. Steelman, unlike another quarterback who plays at Lincoln Financial Field (Mr. Michael Vick), cannot throw a ball 60 yards in the air. Had Army recovered an onside kick at its own 40-yard line, the Black Knights of the Hudson would not have been able to register a tying tally.
Death. Taxes. Navy using a superior big-play passing game to beat Army. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Now blessed with a nine-game winning streak over the Black Knights and, moreover, a ninth win in 2010, the Midshipmen can go get San Diego State for win number 10.
They can also set their sights on a 10-game winning streak when they meet Army in 2011. What a happy possibility to contemplate for the triumphant Men of Ken.
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