Navy takes ninth in a row from Army

Dobbs, Middleton lead Midshipmen to convincing win in 111th game of the series

December 11, 2010|By Kevin Van Valkenburg, The Baltimore Sun

PHILADELPHIA — For a brief moment Saturday, Navy's football team looked anxious. And with good reason.

Army, which hadn't so much as crossed the goal line against the Midshipmen since 2006, was about to score its second touchdown in less than five minutes. Navy clung to a 10-point lead, but its early momentum had completely evaporated, and the Black Knights were 1 yard away from turning the 111th meeting between the two service academies into a slugfest.

Army quarterback Trent Steelman took the snap, surged toward the end zone, and was smothered by Navy linebackers Tyler Simmons and Jerry Hauburger. The football squirted from his grasp, pinballing off several pairs of shoulder pads, until it landed softly in the outstretched arms of Mids co-captain Wyatt Middleton.

Middleton sprinted in the opposite direction for a 98-yard touchdown, providing the signature play in what turned out to be a convincing 31-17 victory for the Midshipmen.

"That was a huge play," said Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo. "They had us reeling there."

Over the final 10 yards of his runback, just before he crossed the goal line, Middleton held up the ball and pumped it several times in the direction of Navy's student section, turning a sea of white hats and black coats into a celebratory mosh pit.

So what inspired the rare display of emotion from the typically understated Middleton?

He explained that he was riffing off a "Spirit Spot" shown earlier in the game; the traditional parody videos are put together by both schools and broadcast on the stadium video screens.

"They kind of put me in one carrying a Shake Weight," he said, referring to the latest infomericial exercise fad. "So that was a little fun thing right there. If I had done it at midfield, I know coach would have yelled at me. It's a game full of so many emotions. I just reacted. I still can't believe I scored."

The win was Navy's ninth consecutive victory in the series, the longest streak by either school. And while the Black Knights (6-6) showed they've been making strides in narrowing the talent gap between the two programs, the Midshipmen (9-3) proved yet again that they have the superior program. The Midshipmen turned the ball over four times, and rushed for the only 139 yards. But their best players — such as Middleton and senior quarterback Ricky Dobbs — were clutch performers in important situations.

In an unexpected twist, Navy actually jumped out to an early 17-0 lead thanks to its passing game, not its running attack. The Mids aerial approach came virtually out of nowhere, considering it was one of the weakest in the country prior to Saturday (ranked 118th out of 120 teams). But just six minutes into the game, with Navy sitting on its own 23 yard line, Dobbs took a snap and rolled to his right. He surveyed Army's defense and then uncorked a rainbow of a throw down the middle of the field. It split two Black Knights defensive backs and hit slotback John Howell perfectly in stride for a 77-yard touchdown. It was the longest pass play in the history of the series.

Howell, who grew up in Philadelphia and used to attend Army-Navy games with is father, admitted he was as surprised as Army was when Dobbs launched the throw in his direction. He dropped a similar ball earlier this year against Maryland, and knew he'd be devastated if it happened again.

"When coach called the play, I was trying to get a [clearout route] for Gee Gee [Greene]," Howell said. "Both guys stayed on me, and I saw the ball in the air. I said to myself 'I can't drop another pass.' "

Dobbs wasn't perfect against Army. In fact, he had the kind of day that could be viewed as a microcosm of his four-year career. He fumbled three times, threw two touchdowns, threw an interception, made several great reads in the triple option and a handful of bad ones. He thrilled his coach and infuriated him all at once.

"That game epitomizes Ricky," Niumatalolo said. "He made some big-time throws, and he was driving me crazy with those turnovers too. But that's Ricky. We kind of live and die with that young man. I love that guy. He's human. He made some great throws and some knucklehead plays, but I love that guy."

Army didn't go away quietly, even after the Midshipmen took a 17-0 lead. They turned a first-half Dobbs' fumble into their first touchdown since 2006, a 5-yard catch by Malcolm Brown off a nice play-action fake by Steelman. It ended a drought that lasted 201 minutes and 43 seconds of game action.

"We were so ready for this game," Steelman said. "We came in and played so hard the entire game."

But Middleton's fumble return brought Army's gathering momentum to a screeching halt.

"I just happened to be standing there," Middleton said. "The credit really goes to Tyler [Simmons] for causing the fumble. I had the easy part. ... Before the game, I told Coach [Buddy] Green I was going to score today. That's just what he wanted to hear. Thankfully it happened."

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