Army-Navy game: Once more, with feeling

December 9, 2011

Rain fell steadily during Navy football practice Wednesday afternoon, and a brisk wind off the Chesapeake Bay at times made conditions downright miserable. Yet players wearing half-sleeves and shorts hollered enthusiastically, shrugging off the elements to enjoy one of the last days they’ll have together on the football field.

For the seniors, that’s particularly the case entering the final game of their college careers and annually the most important contest on the schedule. It is, after all, Army week in Annapolis, and this time the significance is amplified considering the Midshipmen won’t be playing in the postseason.

Navy players thus are treating their meeting with the Black Knights on Saturday afternoon at FedEx Field as if it were a bowl game. It just so happens it’s also against Navy’s most bitter foe in one of college football’s most storied rivalries and will be attended by President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden and their wives.

“You think about these last practices as they come down to the end,” Midshipmen senior defensive end and co-captain Jabaree Tuani said. “Obviously no one wants to go out there and practice as hard, especially coming down to the end of the season. But as a senior, you definitely cherish these moments with the guys while you still have them.”

Normally, the Midshipmen (4-7) would be practicing this time of the year for Army with a bowl appearance on deck, but a 27-24 loss to San Jose State on Nov. 19 ensured the school’s first losing season since 2002. Along the way, Navy failed to win back the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy it relinquished last season and suffered through a six-game losing streak, including four losses by a combined eight points.

A 35-34 loss to Air Force on Oct. 1 began the slide. Navy rallied from an 18-point deficit at halftime to force overtime, and senior quarterback Kriss Proctor’s one-yard touchdown run gave the Midshipmen the lead. But Proctor was called for unsportsmanlike conduct immediately after scoring, and place kicker Jon Teague’s 35-yard extra-point attempt was blocked.

Air Force scored the tying touchdown and kicked the extra point to triumph in Annapolis. From there Navy spiraled, most notably on defense. The Midshipmen allowed at least 38 points in three of the next four games, including 63 to Southern Miss and 56 to Notre Dame.

Navy briefly regained its footing with consecutive victories, allowing players faint hope of salvaging a .500 regular season and a berth in the Military Bowl. But the loss at San Jose State ended Navy’s eight-year bowl run.

Army (3-8), meantime, is contending with its own losing streak that stands at three in a row. The Black Knights, who fell out of bowl contention roughly a month ago, have not scored more than 14 points since beating Fordham, 55-0, on Oct. 29.

Inconsistency at quarterback has plagued Army this season. It has used three players at the position, including three starters in each of the last three games. Regular starter Trent Steelman is recovering from a right knee injury after two plays against Temple on Nov. 19, but the junior appears in line to start against Navy, which has won nine straight in the series and 11 of 13.

“The key for us is just to keep it simple and have fun,” Army senior linebacker Steven Erzinger said. “If you’re putting too much stress on thinking about, ‘Don’t drop the ball, don’t drop the ball, don’t drop the ball,’ you’re going to drop the ball. So you don’t want to do that, but you really want to focus on the things you can control.”

Navy capitalized on one such drop in last year’s game, when senior safety Wyatt Middleton scooped up an Army fumble at the 2-yard line and returned it 98 yards for a touchdown with 1 minute 3 seconds left until halftime. That broke open a close game, and the Midshipmen went on for a 31-17 triumph at Lincoln Financial Field.

Navy won by 14 points for a second straight year and continued the lopsided margin of victory it’s maintained since installing the triple option in 2002. The Midshipmen have won by at least 12 points in every game since then, and their average margin of victory is 26 points.

“They’re great kids, and you just want them to finish out the right way,” Navy Coach Ken Niumatalolo said of the seniors. “There’s going to be a lot of emotion to this game because there’s going to be a finality for these guys, and it’s going to hit them. A game that they’ve loved and been a big part of their lives is coming to an end.”

Gene Wang is a sports reporter covering multiple beats, including Navy football, the Capitals, Wizards, Nationals, women’s basketball, auto racing, boxing and golf. He also covers Fantasy Football.
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