Characterized by sloppy turnovers and an emphasis on passing, Saturday's annual ArmyNavy game was unlike those in recent history, except for one thing - Navy won, 31-17, at Lincoln Financial Field.
Historically, both teams are known for their option offenses and protecting the ball. In this year's edition, the teams combined for six turnovers and 314 passing yards. For comparison, during the previous five matchups, all Midshipmen wins, the teams averaged 166.8 passing yards and 2.4 turnovers combined. Navy had four of the turnovers, including three lost fumbles.
"We obviously would have liked to have taken care of the ball better," third-year Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo said. "We stressed, 3 weeks off, taking care of the football. Obviously I did a bad job coaching it."
Navy bucked the ground-heavy trend early on, as the team passed for 131 yards in the first quarter, including a 77-yard touchdown pass from senior quarterback Ricky Dobbs to sophomore slotback, and Lansdale Catholic product, John Howell. The reception, just the second of Howell's career, was the longest pass play in the history of the Army-Navy game.
"I was actually trying to set a run for [sophomore slotback Gee Gee Greene]," Howell said. "Next thing I knew, I saw the ball in the air and I thought, 'I cannot drop [this] pass.'
"Their safety, we've always been told, is one of their fastest guys. I knew I didn't want to get caught."
Dobbs finished the game with 186 passing yards, his third-highest total of the season. In last year's game, by comparison, Dobbs only threw the ball seven times for 61 yards. Coming into the game, Niumatalolo said he planned on emphasizing his passing offense.
"They play a lot of man," Niumatalolo said. "We knew that they would be one-on-one outside and we were going to take out chances out there . . . We felt like there were some matchups that we could take advantage of outside."
Army trailed, 17-0, but managed to fight its way back into contention behind a strong second-quarter defensive performance.
The Blacks Knights (6-6) recovered two Navy fumbles, one of which set up a 5-yard touchdown pass from Trent Steelman to Malcolm Brown that cut the lead to 10.
The Midshipmen (9-3) fumbled the ball away on their next series and Army drove to the Navy 3, when - on first-and-goal - Navy senior Wyatt Middleton picked up a fumble by Steelman and rumbled 98 yards for a touchdown.
It was the longest fumble recovery in the history of the Naval Academy and gave the Midshipmen a 24-7 lead with 1:03 left in the half.
"Our backs were against the wall," Middleton said. "From being at the [3-yard line], it's like, 'Aw, man, they're about to score on us.' Then, all of a sudden, we score a touchdown . . . My emotions were at a high peak right there."
Navy delivered another huge blow after taking over with 14:44 remaining in the game. Leading, 24-10, the Midshipmen held the ball for the next 9:03 before increasing their lead on a 25-yard touchdown run from sophomore Greene.
"We definitely needed that," Niumatalolo said. "They came back with a pretty good drive to cut our lead down and our guys responded. That's kind of been us all year. Whether it's losses, or a bad play, or a bad series, our guys come back."
Army sophomore slotback Malcolm Brown caught two touchdown passes, including a 45-yarder that capped the scoring and was Army's longest passing play of the season. Army freshman running back and West Catholic High product Raymond Maples finished the game with 13 carries for 66 yards, both career-highs . . . Ricky Dobbs' two touchdown passes gave him 12 for the season and tied him for the most by a Navy player in a single season. Wyatt Middleton's fumble return helped earn him the game's Most Valuable Player honor . . . Navy has defeated Army in a record nine-straight games. Army's senior class went 0-8 combined against the Midshipmen and Air Force. *