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PHILADELPHIA - Army head coach Jeff Monkey scaled the wall in the back corner of the end zone directly in front of the Corps of Cadets, yelling loudly with a fist hoisted high into the air signaling victory.
Just minutes earlier the Black Knights had finished off rival Navy 17-10. And Army stood for the Mids’ alma mater before sprinting into their “corner” to sing second. It’s what the game is all about. Loser sings first and the winner sings last.
After three straight wins (all by a touchdown or less) in the annual service academy clash in Philadelphia, Monken let out some relief of his own in a brief but fiery celebration.
“I was really proud of them,” Monken told Yards & Stripes in the hallway after the game. “We’ve had a lot of victories like that the last couple of years. A couple of years back before that, we were losing close games like that.
“It was the toughenss and just the determination that these guys have to find a way to finish these games and we had to do it tonight. That was a heck of a football game.”
Army (10-2) did in fact finish. Make no mistake. The Black Knights were the better football team on the cold, windy Lincoln Financial Field turf Saturday afternoon as nightfall descended and the temperatures dropped.
Taking the opening kickoff and driving 82 yards on five plays to go up 7-0 right out of the gate, the Black Knight made a statement. However, Navy’s defense played head-and-shoulders its best game of the season and quickly settled in, sending the teams into the halftime locker room with the Black Knights holding a touchdown lead.
Army defensive coordinator Jay Bateman, who announced shortly after the game that’ll be leaving to take the same position at North Carolina, had his unit dialed in again as they have been all season long, forcing four Navy turnovers and limiting the Mids to just 127 yards rushing in the game.
Trailing 10-0 in the fourth quarter, Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo opted to try backup Garret Lewis at quarterback. A spark was ignited in the Miss’ offense. A 34-yard completion to Keoni Kordell-Makekau got the Mids into scoring territory for the time in the football game.
But with 11 minutes remaining and Lewis running inside the Army 5-yard line, Army safety Jaylon McClinton came up with his second big play of the game and knocked the ball loose which was recovered by teammate James Gibson to end the Navy threat.
After forcing Army to punt, Navy (3-9) closed the gap to 10-7 on Lewis’ 1-yard touchdown run with 7:10 left. The Mids forced another punt on Army’s next drive and the underdogs took over with 4:35 remaining on the clock, needing a field goal to tie and a TD to go ahead and likely win the game.
“It really is always a dogfight,” Linebacker and co-captain Cole Christiansen said. “They put in a new quarterback and started running some new things. We were just out of position on a few big plays they hit.”
In one of the more chippy Army-Navy games in recent memory with the two teams exchanging words after several plays, the Army defense stood tall once again. Facing a fourth and 12 at their own 32, Navy starting quarterback Zach Abey was stripped by defensive end Kenneth Brinson and the Black Knights recovered, effectively sealing the win and second-straight Commander-In-Chief Trophy.
“I’m proud of the way our guys fought,” Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo said, who was visibly emotional after addressing his team in the locker room afterward. “I thought we bounced back. It was hard to have that many turnovers, but to our guys’ credit they continued to keep battling. We had a chance there at the end.”
Unlike the previous two games where Army scored close wins over Navy, the Black Knights’ players seemed a bit more businesslike in celebrating the win in the seconds and minutes after the final horn sounded.
“When you win three in a row, it becomes a little bit more matter-of-fact I think,” Monken said. “If you ask Kenny (Niumatalolo), he was involved in 14 in a row, so he knows. It’s just more business-like. But as I told the guys, don’t ever want to let this get old. Don’t ever stop being excited about this and realizing what a feat it is to win this game.”
Niumatalolo and his staff are now left to pick of the pieces from a lost season in Annapolis. It’s by far his worst in 11 seasons leading the program, while Navy had been bowl eligible in 15 of its previous 16 seasons.
Changes are sure to come but for now Navy will have to manage another stinging loss to its arch rival, who now prepare to face Houston in the Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl next week.
“We just need to look at what we can do in order to continue to improve,” Noumatalolo said. “It’s been hard on all of us - the players, the coaches, the staff. We like to win, and we’ve been winning a lot of games and nobody likes to lose. It’s been hard because our program has not been accustomed to what happened this year.”