Army was about to head to a bowl game for the only time this century, and for the first time since 1996. The Black Knights had a decent team in 2010, and late in the second quarter, they were just a couple of yards away from creating a tense 17-14 game against Navy.
The Midshipmen had not yet hit the speedbump of the 2011 season, in which they failed to make a bowl game. That remains the only season in which they haven't made a bowl since the 2003 breakthrough. In 2010, Navy had not known what it was like to lose to Army under Paul Johnson or Ken Niumatalolo. The idea that Army could take the game away from the Midshipmen existed in theory and in the intellectual region of the mind, but in terms of being entertained as a serious possibility? Come on. Navy was better.
However, Army was about to make things VERY interesting at halftime, forcing the Midshipmen to dig deeper than they ever had before.
Except for one thing: Army never got to that point.
The 17-14 deficit -- the intermission with a narrow scoreboard deficit and an ample storehouse of hope for the second 30 minutes of play -- never materialized for West Point.
Wyatt Middleton made sure of it.
In one of the most iconic plays in the history of the Army-Navy Game, Middleton pulled the ball away from traffic, and pulled away from the pile with his legs. Those legs carried Middleton 98 yards for a fumble return touchdown. The pluck-and-paydirt pivot point turned what was about to be a close game into a 24-7 cushion for Navy. The Midshipmen were never seriously threatened from that point on, and their dominance of Army continued.
It remains intact today, with a 13-game winning streak flowing into this Saturday's latest rendition of a venerable American tradition.
Why choose this play, and this 2010 game, as a model for Navy fans to consider before Saturday?
Consider the main occupant of Lincoln Financial Field, the current regular home of the Army-Navy festival.
This past Sunday, there was simply NO WAY that the Philadelphia Eagles were going to beat the New England Patriots. Much as it seems there's no possible pathway for Army to follow to the winner's circle against Navy this week, the Eagles had no real shot against Tom Brady, Bill Belichick, and the rest of the best team (or organization, or both -- take your pick) in professional football. It's not just that the Patriots are the gold standard in terms of consistency, longevity, and high-level achievement; the Eagles were unraveling in a rather dramatic way, having endured wholesale collapses on offense and defense against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Detroit Lions in previous weeks. THIS TEAM was going to go into Foxborough and beat the reigning Super Bowl champions, even with their many injuries at wide receiver and tight end?
No, really -- come on. The idea was preposterous. (One could say it still is.)
Yet... look what happened on that upside-down afternoon.
The Eagles blocked a punt for a touchdown.
They returned a punt 83 yards for a touchdown.
Most of all, they came up with a pick-six, and not just that, but a 99-yard pick six.
The Eagles came up with a play akin to what Wyatt Middleton delivered in 2010... and tripled it.
Three plays, three instances in which a team's offensive unit did absolutely nothing and was, in fact, standing on the sidelines.
Three non-offensive plays -- two on special teams, one on defense -- which scored 21 points and, for that matter, robbed the Patriots of seven points of a gross of 28 total points gained.
Three plays, no offense at all, 9.3 points per play in aggregate.
That's how the 4-7 (now 5-7) Eagles won on the road against the 10-1 (now 10-2) Patriots.
See, Navy fans? This is how Army can win on Saturday.
Yes, many Navy fans would be guarding against complacency or overconfidence regardless of the circumstances. Yes, in the realm of intellect, the words and ideas -- we can't allow touchdowns on special teams or turnovers by Keenan Reynolds -- would be tumbling into actual conversations and internet spaces such as this one.
However, those ideas went from being dry concepts to powerful, lived-out realities on Sunday in New England. Sure, it was an NFL game and not a college game. Sure, Army-Navy will acquire a very different emotional temperature and competitive context this upcoming weekend. Yet, it has to be instructive to actually see a game in which the supposedly impossible upset doesn't just come close to happening, but is finalized by the huge underdog. That it happened in favor of the team whose city hosts Army and Navy this Saturday should lend a little more clarity and centrality to the Midshipmen's pregame preparation.
What should also help Navy to gear up for this game: The Houston loss was a case study in every little thing going wrong. Replicating that worst-case scenario is also a recipe for defeat. Fixing things so that bad luck doesn't coexist with shaky situational performance will safeguard the Midshipmen from defeat, and give this program its first 10-win regular season since 1905.
Navy has so much to play for on Saturday. Army is its own reward, but 10 wins and another Commander-In-Chief's Trophy are massive prizes as well.
Wyatt Middleton's gallop in 2010 shows how quickly a game can change. Navy needs to be on the right side of that play (or to at least prevent Army from uncorking it) in order to move this winning streak over West Point to 14 games.