“You deserved this, Coach,” Williams said. “Congratulations.”
The Midshipmen’s 31-7 victory on a damp Saturday afternoon at Lincoln Financial Field was Niumatalolo’s 97th win as Navy’s coach and his ninth in 12 games against Army. But where did it rank in importance on those two lists?
“Number one,” he said emphatically. “Absolutely number one. We had to get our dominance back.”
The Midshipmen did exactly that Saturday — in large part thanks to the efforts of Malcolm Perry, who was close to unstoppable. By the time the senior quarterback finished his day with a 15-yard touchdown run with 1:42 left, he had rushed for 304 yards on 29 carries.
Perry echoed his coach when he talked about what this game and this day meant to him. “The world,” he said. “Coming into the season, personally, this was my biggest goal. This was the biggest game of my life.”
The Midshipmen wore throwback uniforms from the early 1960s, when Joe Bellino and Roger Staubach won Heisman Trophies — Bellino in 1960 and Staubach in 1963. On the side of their helmets, Navy players wore Bellino’s No. 27 and Staubach’s No. 12. Someday, when the Mids wear throwback uniforms from this era, they may very well honor Perry’s No. 10 the same way.
If the coach and quarterback were feeling extra pressure Saturday, it’s easy to understand why. Army had won the past three contests, meaning this was the biggest game in the lives of all 32 Navy seniors. They needed a victory to avoid spending the next 50 years saying, “0 and 4,” when asked their record against Army.
None wanted any part of that legacy.
Bob Sutton, who was 6-3 in the game as Army’s coach, always told his players, “The more desperate team wins the Army-Navy game.” Sutton was Army’s coach when the Black Knights won five straight games from 1992 to 1996, keeping two groups of Navy seniors winless against their rivals during that stretch.
Sutton also believed that Army-Navy was a one-game season, something completely apart from all the games that had come before. For this Navy team — and especially for its coach and his seniors — this was, indeed, a season apart. The 9-2 record was important, a wonderful turnaround after the 3-10 debacle that was 2018. The victory over Air Force meant a win Saturday would send the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy to Annapolis for the first time since 2015.
But very little of that would matter without a win in this game. The record, the Liberty Bowl bid, all the gaudy statistics, it all would be sullied by the sight of Army taking the trophy back to West Point, retaining it after splitting with Air Force and Navy and beating the Midshipmen for a fourth straight time. The more desperate team? It was clearly Navy.
Niumatalolo readily admitted he had gotten a little bit spoiled by Navy’s 14-game winning streak that stretched from 2002 to 2015 — the first six victories under Paul Johnson, the next eight after Niumatalolo succeeded him. “I’ll never take winning the Army-Navy game for granted again,” he said often during this season.
Most of the games in the streak were one-sided. Army got nothing right during that stretch; Navy got nothing wrong. The average margin of victory was about 20 points. It began to change when Jeff Monken, who had been an assistant along with Niumatalolo on Johnson’s staff, took over at Army. Every coach who takes over a losing program vows to change the culture. Monken actually did it.
His first two Navy games were close losses, and then, finally, Army ended the streak in 2016. Niumatalolo could accept that defeat — albeit grudgingly. His team had played in the American Athletic Conference championship game the week before, and six starters, most notably quarterback Will Worth, had gotten hurt. A year later, Army won in the snow at the buzzer after two late motion penalties — both by seniors — moved Bennett Moehring’s kick back 10 yards. The kick sailed left at the last possible second.
“If we don’t commit those penalties, I think Bennett almost surely makes that kick,” Niumatalolo said last winter.
It was the third straight loss that really got Niumatalolo’s attention. Even though the score was close — 17-10 — he felt, for the first time as the coach, that the better team was on the other sideline. “That,” he said, “had to stop.”
And so he revamped his coaching staff. He got the academy to invest in things such as a nutritionist and a passing coach, and he committed to Perry at quarterback. The concern in the past had been that a 5-foot-9, 195-pounder running the option offense was bound to get hurt. Niumatalolo decided to risk it. Offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper worked nonstop with Perry on avoiding hits and knowing when to get down and when to get out of bounds.
Perry stayed standing for almost the entire season. In a twist, Army played four quarterbacks during its 5-8 fall, seemingly losing a different signal-caller every week.
Army started the season with high hopes of reaching double-digits wins for a third straight season. It took Michigan into double overtime the second week of the season, but then the injuries began to pile up. Health is especially vital at academies because depth is often an issue. Army started 10 different offensive linemen — several at multiple positions — during the season. Navy started the same five players on its line in all 12 games.
That’s not why Navy returned to domination Saturday. The Mids were clearly the better team the final three quarters. Perry didn’t throw a pass all day, although on several plays he dropped back, saw an opening and took off — often for long gains. He tied the game at 7-7 with a 55-yard run early in the second quarter, making a juke worthy of Lamar Jackson that opened up a path to sprint down the sideline.
But the play of the game came with 13 seconds left in the half, with the score still tied. Perry had tight-roped down to the 1-yard line, and — with no timeouts — Niumatalolo decided to go for the touchdown. Perry started left with the entire Army defense in pursuit. He flipped the ball to wide receiver Chance Warren running the other way, and Warren lobbed a pass into the end zone to fullback Jamale Carothers.
A variation of “Philly Special” in Philly. Navy never looked back in the second half. Soon, the sounds of the Midshipmen singing second for the first time since 2015 could no doubt be heard on Navy’s deserted campus — the Yard — some 117 miles away.
For more by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/feinstein.