In the nearly three weeks his team had to prepare for the Army-Navy game, Mids coach Ken Niumatalolo repeatedly emphasized the importance of not turning the ball over.
After his quarterback, Ricky Dobbs, lost three fumbles and threw an interception Saturday, Niumatalolo said, "I did a bad job of coaching."
Niumatalolo, however, could smile because the Midshipmen emerged with the biggest turnover of the game, an Army fumble that Wyatt Middleton returned 98 yards for a touchdown, and went on to a 31-17 victory over the Black Knights before a crowd of 69,223 at Lincoln Financial Field.
On a remarkably pleasant Saturday in December, the Midshipmen (9-3) extended their record by posting their ninth consecutive victory over Army (6-6) and improved their mark in the series to 55-49-7.
The game featured two record-setting touchdown plays and both belonged to Navy. In addition to Middleton's run, Dobbs connected with sophomore slotback John Howell, a graduate of Lansdale Catholic, on a 77-yard pass in the first quarter.
"We feel very fortunate coming up with a W," Niumatalolo said. "We obviously would have liked to have taken care of the ball better but our guys fought. Our defense did a good job. Fortunately, we made some plays in the passing game."
The four turnovers made life stressful for the Mids. Dobbs, their dynamic senior, fumbled the ball away on back-to-back possessions in the second quarter. The Black Knights capitalized on the first on Trent Steelman's 5-yard scoring pass to Malcolm Brown, their first touchdown against the Mids since 2006.
After Dobbs' last fumble, recovered by Steven Anderson, Army drove from its 48 to the Navy 3. Steelman then tried the right side but the Mids stood him up, and linebacker Tyler Simmons ripped the ball from his grasp.
Middleton picked it out of the air and took off. As the Navy sideline practically dashed the length of the field with him, Middleton was home free. He raised the ball in the air the final 10 yards before scoring with 1 minute, 3 seconds left until halftime.
Instead of the Black Knights making it a new game at 17-14, they were down 24-7 thanks to Middleton's record return.
"As a defensive unit, our backs were definitely against the wall," Middleton said. "I just happened to be the guy there to catch it. The credit should go [to Simmons]. I just did the easy part. That was a big-time play for us right there."
The Mids put the game away with a fourth-quarter drive that ran nine minutes off the clock and ended on slotback Gee Gee Greene's 25-yard run with 5:44 to play.
Navy bolted to a 17-0 lead before Army even recorded its initial first down. Dobbs threw two touchdown passes, including the 77-yarder to Howell, the longest pass play in the rivalry's history.
"Their safety [Donovan Travis], we were told, was one of their fastest guys," said Howell, who outran two defenders the final 35 yards to the end zone. "It was one of those things where I knew I didn't want to get caught. But at the same time, I'm still a little shocked."
Dobbs averaged 31 yards on his six completions. That, and the victory, took the sting out of his mistakes.
"I had to shake it off," Dobbs said. "Like in basketball, a good shooter has a short-term memory when he's missing shots. It was the same kind of situation. I've got to forget the past, can't do anything about it now, just have to move forward."
The Black Knights, who have earned their first bowl bid since 1996, were confident they could break their losing streak. But as hard as they tried, Middleton's fumble return was too much to overcome.
"The ball just didn't bounce our way again," Anderson said. "I didn't beat Air Force and I didn't beat Navy in my entire career here and that's something I'll never get over. Today just wasn't our day."
Meanwhile, the Mids' seniors were happy and maybe a little relieved to keep the streak going, particularly offensive tackle Jeff Battipaglia, a graduate of St. Joseph's Prep.
"Having an opportunity to come [to the Linc] three years in a row and play the Army-Navy game, and get those wins, it's something that I'll never forget for the rest of my life," he said. "I'll always take it with me. It's been an honor for me to play on this team with these guys."
Notes. Besides Howell and Battipaglia, other local players who starred included Navy kicker Joe Buckley (Malvern Prep), who opened the scoring with a 36-yard field goal, and Army freshman slotback Raymond Maples (West Catholic), who rushed for a career high 66 yards in 13 carries. . . . Navy plays Dec. 23 in the Pointsettia Bowl in San Diego, and Army finishes against SMU in the Armed Forces Bowl on Dec. 30 in Dallas. . . . Next year's 112th meeting of the two academies will be at FedEx Field in Landover, Md.