Offensive linemen usually are overlooked, but it was difficult to pass over the performance of junior guard Jake Zuzek and the Navy offensive line in Saturday's 34-7 victory over Army at snowy and rainy Lincoln Financial Field.
The Midshipmen rushed for 343 yards led by a 136-yard, three-touchdown output by sophomore quarterback Keenan Reynolds. Fullbacks Noah Copeland and Quinton Singleton ripped off long runs that led to scores by the Mids.
And the 6-foot, 310-pound Zuzek, a West Catholic graduate and a resident of Brookhaven, Delaware County, was in the middle of all of it. On Reynolds' 47-yard dash for his first touchdown, Zuzek blocked his man to the outside, and Reynolds cut inside the block and was gone.
"It's fun because you've got guys that came here, like [former quarterbacks] Ricky Dobbs and Roger Staubach," Zuzek said. "I'm sure that those offensive linemen will never forget that those were the guys they blocked for. So blocking for [Reynolds] is something I'm never going to forget for the rest of my life."
Zuzek also said he and his teammates were happy to extend Navy's winning streak in this storied series to 12.
"I think it means a lot to the brotherhood as a whole," he said. "Coming into this game, we didn't really talk about it at all. That was something that we wanted to keep in the past and focus on this game. Being from this area, it's pretty sweet, and I had a lot of people here to watch me. For the brotherhood as a whole and for the school, keeping the streak alive is pretty good."
Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo often is concerned about players making their first appearance in an Army-Navy game because of the magnitude of the rivalry.
He said he had those same worries initially over freshman cornerback Brendon Clements, but the Miami native looked at home in the foul weather by having a hand in all three Army turnovers - two forced fumbles and a second-quarter interception.
"He's a young guy who's ahead of the game, smart," Niumatalolo said. "I was concerned a little bit because you get in these games and sometimes the emotions take over, especially for a young guy, but I thought he played great. He had his eyes in the right place all the time. He played a very, very good football game."
Clements said he woke up Saturday morning as a bundle of nerves.
"I told some of the other players at breakfast, 'I'm nervous, I haven't been nervous all year, and I'm nervous now,' " Clements said. "We haven't even left for the game yet. They told me, 'Don't be nervous, just go out there and have fun.' By the time I got to the stadium, all the nerves were gone and I got into my assignments."
Army's new starter
Army coach Rich Ellerson started sophomore A.J. Schurr at quarterback in place of junior Angel Santiago, who had started all of the Black Knights' previous 11 games.
But Schurr fumbled the ball on each of his first two series, losing the ball on the second, and took a seat on the bench for the rest of the game. Santiago accounted for the Black Knights' only touchdown on a 4-yard run in the third quarter.
"We wanted to see if we could tap into those dynamic plays that A.J. can make, that upside," Ellerson said. "We changed our mind when we saw the conditions and A.J. struggling with it. Angel had the ball on the ground, too."
Santiago, who lost a fumble and threw an interception, said the coaches decided Monday to start Schurr.
"I just wanted to support him and make sure that I did everything in my power to help him become a better quarterback," Santiago said. "My main focus [entering the game] was trying to move the offense and put us in the end zone . . . try my best to keep the ball off the ground."
Army kept going despite the fact that a couple of its key figures were playing injured.
Junior fullback Larry Dixon, who broke his wrist last month, wore a cast and rushed for 33 yards on nine carries. Linebacker Thomas Holloway, who suffered a shoulder injury on Navy's first series, came back in the second half.
"The doctors felt confident with the cast and I would be ready to go," Dixon said. "They asked me if I thought I could do it, and I said: 'If I can walk, I can play.' This team is special, and I'm never going to miss a chance to play."
For Holloway, playing in his final game for Army, he wanted to do anything he could to get back.
"I hit the fullback pretty hard and sprained my AC joint," Holloway said. "They took some X-rays, and they said they could give me some numbing medicine. They shot me up and after halftime they said I could go in. It hurts really bad, but I never would have given up on the chance to play with my brothers one last time."
A farewell appearance
Navy wide receiver and co-captain Matt Aiken, who suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament three weeks ago against San Jose State, managed to take part in his final Army-Navy game, running down on the kickoff after the Midshipmen's final touchdown.
"He's such a big part of our team that I wanted to give him the opportunity," Niumatalolo said of the senior. "I wanted him to make sure he stayed close to the sidelines. I told him, 'If anybody gets close to you, come out of bounds.' I know the doctors did not want him in there."
Defensive captain Cody Peterson said he was thrilled to see Aiken on the field.
"To be able to see him get on the field at the end, that meant a lot to us," Peterson said. "That meant a lot to me because he's one of my very close friends. I know he's going to remember that."