PHILADELPHIA - Army senior quarterback Trent Steelman had his team marching down the field with two minutes left to score what could have been the touchdown that ended Army’s 10-game losing streak to Navy. And then all that hope slipped right out of sophomore fullback Larry Dixon’s hands and Steelman joined the eight senior classes before him that never saw Army beat Navy.
Dixon fumbled on a fullback dive at Navy’s 13-yard line and heartbreak gripped West Point for the eleventh straight year in the 113th meeting of these two storied rivals. Navy beat Army 17-13 at Lincoln Financial Field in front of a sellout crowd of 69,607 to include Vice President Joe Biden, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey, and a large chunk of the military brass.
Navy’s eighth win of the season earned the Midshipmen the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy after beating the Air Force Academy earlier this year. The trophy is awarded to the service academy who wins the most games in their head-to-head series.
Led by freshman quarterback Keenan Reynolds, Navy overcame a 13-10 fourth quarter deficit with Reynolds scoring the winning touchdown on an 8-yard run after a 49-yard completion that set up the score.
Reynolds never flinched from the pressure of his first Army-Navy game: throwing for 103 yards, rushing for 49, and orchestrating Navy’s triple option rushing attack that Army’s defense stymied for long periods of the game. However, with 6:53 left to play, and Army’s crowd in full throat, Reynolds led Army down the field on an 80-yard game-winning drive.
Reynolds, voted the game’s most valuable player, struggled to move the ball in the first quarter as he missed a few reads and looked a bit nervous in his first Army-Navy game. Reynolds looked to gain confidence in the second quarter leading Navy on their first scoring drive after Army running back Raymond Maples fumbled.
Navy’s seniors said after the game that they didn’t want to be the senior class to end the unprecedented winning streak over Army. Navy’s margin of victory was the smallest throughout their winning streak and the first time Navy has trailed in a fourth quarter.
For Steelman, it was his fourth straight loss as the starting quarterback. He became only the second quarterback to start four Army-Navy games in the rivalry’s history.
With smudged eye black and red eyes, Steelman struggled to put into words the disappointment of losing a game that he and his teammates felt they should have won. Army had its opportunities, but they missed a field goal and fumbled the ball three times. Army coach Rich Ellerson said those mistakes decided the game.
“It’s just unfortunate, I don’t know how else to put it. I feel like we deserved that game in every way possible but it just didn’t happen. We were wearing them down and there was nothing that was going to stop us, but that’s life; things don’t go your way sometimes,” Steelman said.
Navy’s opportunistic defense frustrated Army’s offense giving up chunks of yards but keeping Army out of the end zone and causing turnovers. Steelman said the team emphasized protecting the football, but Navy defender were able to pry it loose five times and recovering three.
Navy’s offense didn’t get on track until they opened up their playbook and relied on their freshman quarterback’s arm to balance out their attack. Senior Brandon Turner begged head coach Ken Niumatalolo to call a deep pass play for the 6-foot-4 wide receiver. Reynolds delivered a perfect throw and Turner snagged the ball in the fourth quarter leaving Navy eight yards from the winning score.
Reynolds didn’t start the season on the field. Niumatalolo didn’t turn to his freshman quarterback until the game against Air Force in which Reynolds spearheaded a come from behind victory. Niumatalolo said his freshman has a chance to be one of the best quarterbacks in Navy history.
“His legacy will be whether he stays hungry and stays humble. If he does those two things that kid has the chance to go down as one of the best quarterbacks we’ve ever had here,” Niumatalolo said.
It was more disappointment for Steelman. Army has again made the rivalry competitive since the arrival of Ellerson and Steelman, but the Black Knights have yet to close the deal against Navy. Saturday’s game marked the end of Steelman’s career.
“This is unfortunate because this doesn’t correlate with that he’s accomplished here. He’s a great competitor and an accomplished player. He deserves to feel better on the last day, but when it all gets into perspective it’ll be okay,” Ellerson said.
Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno consoled Steelman after the game. Niumatalolo put his arm around the quarterback as the two walked off the field.
“We should be all proud as Americans that that guy is going to go protect our country. They don’t get any tougher than Trent Steelman. Four years starting at West Point, a military service academy. I know everyone in our locker room has nothing but respect for that young man,” Niumatalolo said.
However, it was a freshman who stood in the way and kept Steelman from earning a win against Navy during his career. For Reynolds, he said he felt more satisfaction for the seniors on his side of the field than for himself.
“I feel for these guys, I feel for the seniors that work so hard to get here. I play for them. I play for the love of my brothers,” Reynolds said.