Army makes strides but still can't catch up with Navy

December 11, 2010|Kevin Cowherd

PHILADELPHIA — — At least this one felt like a game.

At least Army didn't roll over in its 111th meeting with archrival Navy the way it has in so many of these games recently.

No, this time the Cadets kept fighting to the end, with sophomore quarterback Trent Steelman hooking up with sophomore Malcom Brown for a 45-yard touchdown pass late in the game to keep Verne Lundquist and Gary Danielson talking and millions of viewers glued to the CBS broadcast.

But in the end it was the same old result: Navy a 31-17 winner in its annual beatdown of Army before 69,223 fans at Lincoln Financial Field Saturday.

How bad have things gotten for Army in this storied rivalry?

Pretty bad.

This was Navy's ninth straight win dating back to the 2002 season. And the average score of those wins is 35-10.

Sorry, but the one-sidedness of this series is now taking on biblical proportions, especially up the Hudson River in West Point and with Army supporters all over the world.

It may not be Wile E. Coyote vs. the Road Runner, or the Harlem Globetrotters vs. the Washington Generals. But it's awfully embarrassing to the Cadets. And it probably doesn't do a whole lot for the TV ratings, either.

And here the program is suddenly resurgent, coming into this game 6-5 under second-year coach Rich Ellerson. The Cadets are even headed to a bowl game this year: they'll play SMU in Dallas in the unfortunately named Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl Dec. 30.

But no matter how good they've been recently, Navy seems to spank them in this game every year.

At least Army finally scored a touchdown against Navy (actually two) — something it hadn't done since 2006.

Still, if you're wondering if nine straight over Army has diluted the rivalry for the Navy players, forget it.

Army-Navy is too ingrained. The importance of the game is drummed into their heads and seared into their souls the moment they arrive in Annapolis.

"Ever since we came in on Day One into the Academy, it's 'Go Navy, Beat Army,' said Navy's heady senior quarterback Ricky Dobbs, who completed six of 11 passes for 186 yards and two touchdowns. "Even the people who don't play sports. It's like a way of life."

"Every game is important," senior linebacker Tyler Simmons said of the rivalry. "We really practice for this game all year. You may be playing another opponent, but in the back of your mind, you're thinking about this one."

Then there's Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo, the ultimate play-em'-one-game-at-a-time coach, who seems almost dismissive of the way Navy has owned Army the past nine years.

"There have been a lot of players and a lot of people involved with it," he said after the game. "We just try to take it one game at a time. We were just playing this game, not any of the games prior. None of those games had any relevance on what happened tonight."

Well, OK, coach.

But try telling that to Army fans, who are more than dimly aware that the Cadets have now lost 11 straight games in the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy series (six against Navy and five against Air Force.)

On the other hand, how impressive has the Niumatalolo era been at Navy?

He took over for the storied Paul Johnson three years ago and the program never missed a beat.

The Midshipmen are 9-3 on the year and Niumatalolo's 27 wins are the most in school history by a coach in his first three seasons.

He's also the first coach at Navy to lead the Midshipmen to a bowl game each of his first three years. (Navy plays in the even-more-unfortunately-named San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl against San Diego State Dec. 23.

Here's what Niumatalolo's done especially well: He's taken Johnson's high-powered triple-option offense and tweaked it masterfully, allowing a quarterback like Dobbs to use his natural talents as a passer. (How about the Midshipmen throwing all over the place in the first half Saturday like they were Air Coryell or Tom Brady's Patriots?)

Niumatalolo is a soft-spoken man who talks up the Academy at every turn and seems genuinely humbled to be coaching young men who could be headed into battle when they leave Annapolis.

He's the kind of guy who constantly deflects praise from himself and heaps it on the players.

But in the minutes after Navy's win, he seemed to glow with a quiet satisfaction.

"We're 9-3," he said simply. "There are a lot of teams that would like to be 9-3."

And the season isn't over yet.

kevin.cowherd@baltsun.com

(Listen to Kevin Cowherd Tuesdays from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. with Jerry Coleman on Fox 1370 AM Sports.)

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