PHILADELPHIA — The new era in the Army-Navy rivalry looks like this: Army’s Kell Walker taking one sharp side step at full speed around his defender to break free for a 51-yard run that sets up a touchdown on the Black Knights’ opening drive.
It looks like safety Jaylon McClinton knocking the ball out of second-string quarterback Garret Lewis’s hands to force a fumble early in the fourth quarter — the first of two Navy fumbles that period while the Mids tried to rally.
It felt like such bliss that running back Rashaad Bolton chose the moment to propose to his girlfriend on the turf at Lincoln Financial Field in the aftermath of Army’s 17-10 win over Navy in the 119th edition of the game Saturday.
On a day in which everything went Army’s way, of course she said yes.
The Black Knights celebrated their third victory in a row in the Army-Navy game, a win that said as much about Army’s resurgent program as it did about Navy’s troubled season, as if it were their first.
Coach Jeff Monken’s Black Knights (10-2) claimed undeniable ownership of momentum in the storied rivalry and extended their program turnaround in front of a crowd of 66,729 that included President Trump, the first sitting president to attend the Army-Navy game in seven years.
“This is the hardest game to win,” Monken said. “It doesn’t matter what your record is, it doesn’t matter who you got playing quarterback. It’s just really, really hard to win. You’ve got two really evenly matched teams who play the game as hard and as tough as anybody plays it . . . There’s just a desperate effort on both teams. It’s hard to describe. And when you win a game like that — I don’t want our guys to ever stop celebrating this one like it’s the very first one.”
This win, coupled with the Black Knights’ 17-14 victory in November over Air Force, ensured Army keeps the coveted Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy for a second straight year, the first time in the program’s history it has won it twice in a row. The Knights have won it just three times in the past 23 years. They will have a chance to win 11 games in a season for the first time in program history when they play Houston on Dec. 22 at the Armed Forces Bowl in Fort Worth.
It might feel just as good as beating Navy.
The Black Knights made big plays when it counted Saturday, with two crucial interceptions and forcing two key fumbles, one of which led to a touchdown late in the fourth quarter. Army outgained Navy, 283-203, with a late push from Navy, which was held scoreless and to 64 total yards through the first three quarters.
On the ground, Army outgained its rivals, 222-127, thanks to a balanced, disciplined attack led by quarterback Kelvin Hopkins Jr., who ran for 64 yards and both of the Black Knights’ touchdowns.
Navy’s offense was just as anemic as it has been all season and was led by the speedy slotback Malcolm Perry, who ran for 53 yards on six carries. Army’s defense never allowed Perry the chance to do what he does best: make big plays.
In the last game of their season, the Mids (3-10) still hadn’t figured out how to make their offense run smoothly, and they clocked their 13th straight road loss. Navy’s quarterbacks — Lewis and starter Zach Abey— had little success. Lewis went 5 for 11 for 81 yards. Abey went 0 for 5 and threw two interceptions.
The defeat capped Navy’s worst season since going 2-10 in 2002, Paul Johnson’s first year as coach.
“It’s been hard on all of us, on players, on coaches, on staff, on our school — we like to win,” said Coach Ken Niumatalolo, who finished his 11th season as head of the program Saturday. “We’ve been winning a lot of games. Losing sucks. Nobody likes to lose, and it’s been hard because our program hasn’t been accustomed to what’s happened this year.”
The win cements momentum in the series in Army’s favor. Monken’s program build has been slow and steady — in 2016 the Black Knights broke Navy’s 14-game win streak in the rivalry, in 2017 they recaptured the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy, and this year represents stability in the program.
“There’s a sense of pride that’s built, and they want to see it continue … and if the guys really care, if they really are mentally tough, they’re not going to let the thing slip and go the other direction.
“For our seniors, to come in here and go 2-10 as freshmen, and be sitting here as seniors, 10-2, is something they can look back at and be really proud of. They’ve won 28 games in the last three years, that’s the most in school history. Back-to-back 10-win seasons, never been done in school history. Playing in a third-straight bowl game, never been done in school history. This senior class has a really cool legacy that they’re leaving.”
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