The Navy team on display in yesterday's first half at Lincoln Financial Field was not the same bunch of Midshipmen who had shown methodical command the last two years against archrival Army.
Before Navy finally won, 17-3 - its eighth consecutive victory in the 110th game of the storied service academies rivalry - the blundering Mids threw an interception and coughed up a fumble on back-to-back possessions.
Navy also lost gains of 58 and 34 yards on pass plays because of holding penalties.
As a result, the Black Knights led, 3-0, at halftime and, when Navy entered its locker room, it was gut-check time.
"Not much needed to be said," Navy quarterback Ricky Dobbs said. "We knew we were in for a dogfight. We were coming from behind, so it was do-or-die for us. Coach wanted us to make a statement with our first drive."
Navy did. The Midshipmen took the second-half kickoff, drove 68 yards for the go-ahead touchdown behind Dobbs' running and passing, and carried that momentum through the second half to prevail against Army before a crowd of 69,541.
Navy (9-4) held the Black Knights without a touchdown for the third year in a row. The Mids extended their advantage to 54-49-7 in the 110-game series and denied the Black Knights (5-7) a chance at their first bowl bid since 1996.
Instead of playing Army in the Dec. 29 EagleBank Bowl in Washington, Temple now will play UCLA.
However, yesterday's game wasn't nearly as much of a breeze for Navy as the previous two years, when the Mids outscored Army by a total of 72-3.
The Black Knights' defense controlled the first half, giving its offense the ball at the Navy 12-yard line on an interception by linebacker Steve Erzinger and on the Army 47 on a fumble recovery by defensive tackle Chris Swain. But Army got just three points - Alex Carlton's 23-yard field goal after the pick.
"Both of those turnovers killed us, but I thought our defense was very resilient in not giving them anything," Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo said. "That could have been catastrophic for us. Those were great stops for us."
"We have guys who are going to scratch and fight," said linebacker Ross Pospisil, Navy's defensive captain. "We have guys who believe in each other and can take care of their responsibilities. It's just going out and not having big plays like that affect us."
The two holding penalties were uncharacteristic for Navy, the nation's least-penalized team entering the game, but the Mids' offense played mistake-free football in the second half.
Dobbs, a 6-foot-1, 198-pound junior who gained 113 yards on 33 carries, took charge. He ran the ball seven times, including a 3-yard gain on fourth and 1 at the Army 30, and ended the opening drive of the half with a 25-yard touchdown pass to Marcus Curry, wide open on the goal line.
He had six more carries on the Mids' next possession, which ended with a 36-yard field goal by Malvern Prep graduate Joe Buckley.
In the second and third quarters, the Black Knights did not have a first down and gained just 39 yards of total offense.
"We did all the things you need to do to have a productive day offensively, but we didn't do it with consistency," first-year Army coach Rich Ellerson said. "We managed to squander some series and squander some plays that you can't recover from."
The Black Knights lost a fumble in the fourth quarter that Navy linebacker Craig Schaefer returned to the Army 12. Dobbs scored four plays later on a 1-yard run, his 24th rushing touchdown, an NCAA single-season record for a quarterback.
"That's a blessing," said Dobbs, voted the game's most valuable player. "God put me in a spot, around great guys.. . ."
Army twice marched inside the Navy 20 in the fourth quarter. But Carlton missed a 32-yard field goal at the end of one drive, and Trent Steelman threw a fourth-down pass that was intercepted in the end zone by linebacker Ram Vela with 2:36 to play.
Niumatalolo was asked if the win was sweeter because his team had to work so hard to get it.
"As long as we have one more point than them, that's all we're worried about," he replied.
Notes: Secretary of Defense Robert Gates participated in the pre-game coin toss. . . . Navy has one game remaining, a Texas Bowl matchup in Houston against Missouri on Dec. 31.