Army-Navy rejoins ranks of classics, thanks to Cadets' stirring comeback

Phil Jackman

December 07, 1992|By Phil Jackman

PHILADELPHIA -- For years it has been called a classic wit what was happening on the field rarely living up to the description. Of late, there had been too many 24-3, 27-7 and 33-6 scores turned in by teams with poor records.

What happened Saturday in the madhouse in South Philly known as Veterans Stadium, however, assures that Army and Navy will retain its place at or near the top of all sports rivalries for another century or so. Breathtaking seems woefully inadequate.

The Cadets of West Point faced what appeared to be an impossible situation. They had been manhandled during the first two-thirds of the 93rd meeting between the pair and trailed the inspired Midshipmen, 24-7.

"We never flinched," Army coach Bob Sutton said. "Emotion and momentum run so high in this game, all I had to do is keep reminding the players to just keep chipping away, they weren't going to get back into this one in a hurry."

Thing is, Army was lucky it wasn't blown out by the time it started its big push late in the third period. "We won the toss and deferred [making a decision] to the second half and, thankfully, ended up with the wind in the fourth quarter," the coach said.

Ah, the wind: probably 25 mph constantly with gusts up to 40. A guy in the press box with scrambled eggs on his visor said it reminded him of standing watch in the North Atlantic.

Navy took the opening kickoff and, into the teeth of the gale, went 80 yards in 11 plays to score, senior Duke Ingraham sprinting in from 24 yards away. Army fumbled a pitchout on its first play from scrimmage, lost 6 yards and dropped into a hole it took forever to climb out of.

The Mids scored the second time they had the ball, a field goal, and the fourth, Ingraham barreling in again from 7 yards out. It was 17-0. Oh, my!

"Besides defensing us well," Sutton said, "Navy was jamming our signals, and that was giving us all sort of problems. But, in a game like this, you never think the crucial plays going against you early are killers."

While the coach didn't lack for faith that things would turn around, his kid quarterback Rick Roper was almost overconfident. Running with the jayvees last year, the one-time hot-shot wishbone quarterback from Texas said, "When you think so firmly for so long that you're going to win, it's hard to convince yourself otherwise."

So the sophomore went to work. On what resembled an old-time naked reverse, Roper faked so expertly he was about 20 yards down the field before any Navy defender realized he had the ball. "A little faster and I would have scored," Rick said of the 43-yard scamper to the Navy 22. "I think it was my longest run ever, so I was in uncharted territory."

Army scored and the teams headed into the locker room to thaw out and hear Navy coach George Chaump say, "Don't change a thing," and Sutton once again caution: "Be patient. First, we've got to get back in the game. Make them play and think about things. Then we can worry about winning."

Navy scored the first time it had the ball in the second half, Jason Van Matre drilling Tom Pritchard with a super throw, and Army went two more possessions with offensive thrust nowhere in its arsenal.

"After trying to establish the run so long, it was apparent we had to change things, and the turnovers [by Navy] helped," Roper said. Van Matre dropped the ball, a Cadet gobbled it up and, on its first play from scrimmage, Army scored on a 22-yard run by Roper.

Halfway through the fourth period, the Black Knights closed to 24-20 when Roper hit tight end Gaylord Greene over the deep middle on a 68-yard scoring play.

"I knew we were going for two points the next time we scored," Sutton said. "Only question was whether we'd use a fake or a two-point play." The fake worked perfectly, holder Chris Shaw having a surprisingly easy time skirting a Navy flank.

Things really got nuts now.

"What happened to us in the second period, the wind giving us lousy field position, happened to Navy at the end. The wind was a major factor, no doubt, and now it was our ally," Sutton said.

The Mids, attempting to nurse a two-point lead, got a first down and kicked to midfield. Army couldn't budge, but then got the break of the game. It had a punt bound on the Navy 5 and stop dead on the 1, where it was covered by a Cadet. Replays show the cover man ended up dragging the ball over the goal line for an arguable touchback, but the official placed the ball on the 1.

Navy couldn't move so much as a silly little millimeter as receivers alone in the flat dropped passes. It punted out to its 32-yard line, from where perhaps the most dramatic two minutes of the season began.

"I was satisfied with the distance we'd be kicking right then, that's how strong the wind was and it was blowing straight," said the victorious coach. "Despite an up and down season, I felt good about Pat Malcom's kicking under the circumstances."

The Cadets gained 7 yards, then lost it, and now Roper had one more play to make.

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