On several occasions during this magnificent winning streak against Army, the Navy football team has managed to blast the Black Knights out of the water. The Midshipmen pushed Rich Ellerson out of West Point with their 2013 thumping of the Brave Old Army Team. They annihilated Army squads coached by Todd Berry, Bobby Ross, and Stan Brock. Navy has been ble to flex its muscles on several occasions against Army.
Saturday was not one of them.
Army's offense actually became explosive against Navy, a rare sight in this century. Chris Carter could become West Point's answer to Keenan Reynolds, a thought which should make the Midshipmen very concerned in future seasons. Carter lent a dynamic quality to Army's offense in the first half of Saturday's game, and if he makes the evolution coach Jeff Monken expects him to make, the Black Knights will become an even tougher opponent for Navy in 2016 and beyond.
What also happened on Saturday was that Army, given fuel not just from motivation and preparation, but also the ability to rest for three weeks and treat this contest as a bowl game, bottled up Navy's triple option. The Midshipmen couldn't establish the pitch game, and aside from a couple home-run bursts from Reynolds, Navy's ground game wasn't able to flourish. This game could have become a lot less dramatic in the final minutes of regulation if Navy had been able to pound out just one first down against Army's defense on multiple occasions in the fourth quarter. The Mids just couldn't do it, and that's why Army hung on as long as it did (until the final play and the final second of regulation).
This was a day for survival. The Midshipmen simply weren't at their best, following a long and draining 11-game march, one which had been crammed with high-stakes contests played in the national spotlight. Navy has played spotlight games before -- many of these players are used to the occasional big game in South Bend or Air Force. However, this first season in the AAC introduced Navy to the unique pressure of conference competition, and the constant flow of both intrigue and opportunity that particular existence involves. Navy wished it would have had a game to play (against Temple) on December 5, but even with a bye due to the loss in Houston, Navy faced a much tougher preparation schedule for this game than Army did. Such is life when you take on the complexities attached to conference membership and the pursuit of the Group of Five's New Year's Six bowl berth.
All that mattered on Saturday was the final result. It wasn't a day to be nitpicky about missed assignments or inadequate blocking. It wasn't a day to lament imperfect throws or a limited offense. Navy just needed to get to that finish line, spent and drained after a long but fruitful season.
Getting to the finish line was most centrally about pushing The Streak from 13 games to 14. Yet, it was about so much more than that... even though a New Year's Six bowl was off the table.
The list of milestones and accomplishments in play for Navy on Saturday didn't include a Peach Bowl slot against Florida State, so in that sense, "everything" was not on the line.
Coulda fooled me, though:
-- Navy was playing for the Commander-In-Chief's Trophy.
-- The Midshipmen were playing for the ability to give Ken Niumatalolo eight wins against Army, tying Red Blaik (the greatest coach in the history of service academy football) for the most wins by a coach in this series.
-- Keenan Reynolds, who did finish fifth in the Heisman Trophy voting (the totals were released Saturday night), therefore had a right to feel especially steamed about not being given an invitation to the ceremony. Reynolds, the most decorated Navy quarterback since Roger Staubach, attempted to become the first quarterback in Army-Navy history to go 4-0 in the series.
-- Navy was playing for the right to claim the program's second 10-win regular season, the first since 1905. (The program won 10 games twice in recent years, but those tenth wins came in bowl games. Navy truly hadn't won 10 games in a regular season in 110 years.)
This is what it's like to be the champion, to wear the crown and the bulls-eye which comes with it: You might have achieved so much over the longer run of time, but that push to get the next game, the next accomplishment, is still very intense. Other opponents dig in their heels and redouble their efforts to take something away from you, to deny you the moment you've hungered for.
Reynolds had already beaten Army three times, but if he hadn't won this fourth time, it would have been hard to handle.
Navy was playing for the present -- and for a head coach who will now interview with BYU -- but the Midshipmen were also playing for history, for the ability to claim special achievements that have been elusive for not just decades, but centuries.
Being able to do something that had never been done before (create a quarterback who went 4-0 in Army-Navy Games), and being able to do something that had been achieved only once before (winning 10 games in a regular season) -- both in a year when Keenan Reynolds was robbed of a Heisman Trophy ceremony experience -- made this game important for reasons which transcended Army.
Yes, Army IS the transcendent element of this game, so consider this game "doubly transcendent" as an extension of its importance.
Just imagine what this game would have been like if a New Year's Six bowl slot was also on the line.
At any rate, the presure on a tired team was enormous. Army, on the other hand, was supremely rested and playing with house money after a largely disappointing autumn.
Forget the performance evaluations and the tactics and the statistics.
Forget the busts in the secondary or the soft coverage which allowed Army to convert more third-and-long situations in the first half than it frankly should have.
Coordinator Dale Pehrson's defense played a magnificent second half and came up with enough huge plays in the fourth quarter to preserve the win. Reynolds, though limited for most of the day, found just enough brilliance in his arm and legs to nudge Navy across the 20-point mark.
Opportunities which don't come along very often will not be viewed from a distance in a context of lamentation and bitterness. Navy -- for all its flaws on Saturday -- did what it has done throughout the Ken Niumatalolo era: It found a way.
Navy can't control whether Niumatalolo, a Mormon, leaves for BYU. What it can say is that its personality -- an extension of its coach -- served the program well one more time on a day when the Midshipmen, through sheer force of will and perseverance, made their 2015 regular season a complete and unquestioned success.