The 5 best wins of the Paul-and-Ken era

When Paul Johnson crushed Army at the end of what had been a very difficult transitional season in 2002, hope blossomed for Navy football fans. Yet, who could have known just how prosperous a period that game would bring to Annapolis? Here’s a look at what followed over the next 12 seasons:

There’s only one ground rule here, and that’s an exclusion of Army games from this list. That’s not a diminishment of Army games; actually, it’s anything but. The idea of putting wins over Army in the same list as wins over various schools seems to cheapen the value of a win in the Army-Navy Game. That contest will always be the most important for the Naval Academy. One would think that such a game does, in fact, deserve to be placed in its own special category, not to be mixed with more “common” games, which certainly have their own considerable importance… but aren’t ARMY.


5) Navy 48, Pittsburgh 45 – October 10, 2007

This was one of several games that Navy teams over the past 12 seasons have managed to pull out of the fire, crazy contests that felt fragile the whole way, but which the Midshipmen ultimately swiped at the end. The game was emblematic of Pittsburgh’s penchant for failing to win close ones under Dave Wannstedt, but Navy had its own business to tend to. At any rate, what stands out here is that this win preceded the Notre Dame win by a few weeks. At the time, of course, expecting to win in South Bend was just not something the Midshipmen could count on, given that they hadn’t yet beaten the Irish for the first time since 1963. Winning this game prevented Navy from falling to 3-3. Given that the team lost to both Wake Forest and FCS-based Delaware before the Notre Dame game, this win in Pittsburgh offered the 2007 team a crucial cushion… and an important reminder that it could beat a team from a power conference (or with the stature befitting one) on the road.


4) Navy 23, Rutgers 21 – September 20, 2008

This was Ken Niumatalolo’s first season as head coach, so it was extremely important for the Midshipmen to make this season count and tell themselves (and the rest of the college football world) that they were going to be just fine, thank you, under their new leader. Navy started the season 1-2, however, scuffling against Ball State and getting ripped apart by Duke’s offense in a 41-31 loss. This game with Rutgers was sorely needed to put the team at 2-2 after four games.

Keep in mind that Rutgers was coming off two of its best seasons in program history under coach Greg Schiano. The Scarlet Knights, in 2007, knocked off No. 2 South Florida in a primetime game on Thursday night to show the country that they deserved to be taken seriously. Rutgers was also 0-2 and struggling entering this game, so under the betting theory that “a losing team will be mad and therefore ready to bounce back,” Navy faced a very dangerous opponent. What’s more is that Rutgers did in fact rebound in 2008 to make a bowl game and capture eight wins. Navy, though, wouldn’t allow the Scarlet Knights to bounce back against them, in Annapolis. A late field goal gave Navy the lead, and Russ Pospisil – who made so many giant plays during his collegiate career – picked off a pass with 1:34 left to seal a hugely important win for Navy. Later in the same season, wins over Air Force and Temple were also plucked from very precarious positions. The identity of Navy as a team that found ways to win close games had been sustained in Niumatalolo’s first season. The value of that reality cannot be understated, even today.


3) Navy 31, Indiana 30 – October 20, 2012

After Navy missed a bowl game in 2011, the program needed to bounce back in 2012. The team started 1-3, fought its way back to 3-3, but then got outplayed for most of its game at home against the Indiana Hoosiers, a team the Midshipmen should regularly defeat. Indiana moved the ball with machine-like regularity over the first three quarters, taking leads of 17-7 and then 30-21 with just over 12 minutes left. Navy fought uphill the entire afternoon, but created two three-and-outs on defense and got the ball back to its offense for a go-ahead drive. A touchdown with 2:02 left and subsequent interception just seconds later (hey, that sounds familiar) delivered a season-changing win, one which ensured that yes, Navy would return to a bowl. The Midshipmen have remained in “bowl-world” ever since.

2) Navy 28, Air Force 25 – October 4, 2003

The Commander-In-Chief’s Trophy had not resided in Annapolis since 1981. Given that Navy obliterated Army at the end of the 2002 season, and given that Army football was clearly stuck in the muck, entering one of the more difficult times in the program’s history, the next really big step for the Midshipmen was to handle the team from Colorado Springs, the team that had won 13 of 14 CIC Trophy championships from 1989 through 2002. Air Force looked like a giant obstacle at the time, but today, the Midshipmen stand on equal terms with the Falcons, and for several years in the past decade, Navy held the unquestioned upper hand in the series. This game turned the tide and therefore represents another watershed moment engineered in the Johnson-Niumatalolo era.

This win didn’t just give Navy CIC Trophy leverage in 2003. It set a tone for the rest of the season and made sure that road trips to Vanderbilt and Rice in each of the next two weeks (on October 11 and 18 of that season) were handled properly. Navy’s offense scored at least 37 points in those trips to Nashville and Houston, and the bulk of the work had already been done in terms of getting the Midshipmen back to a bowl game for the first time since 1996, and for only the second time since 1981. Navy had been almost totally dormant since George Welsh left back in ’81, and while 1996 was a pleasant interruption of those comparatively gloomy years, this win over Air Force – almost as much as the blowout of Army in 2002 – restored Navy and ushered in this grand era of football.


1) Navy 46, Notre Dame 44 – November 3, 2007

Not much of an explanation is needed here – this was merely the most satisfying win for Annapolis football since the Roger Staubach years, not just in the Johnson-and-Niumatalolo era. It's the kind of moment which registers as an "I remember where I was when this happened" kind of moment. No one who followed Navy closely at the time will ever forget this afternoon-turned-evening in South Bend. Top Stories