PHILADELPHIA – Weather patterns took their turn. First half, snowy and windy. Second half, blowing rain. Postgame. Gloomy. At least on Army’s side of the field.
"That gets away for the reason that any football game gets away -- we turned the ball over against a good football team,” Army head coach Rich Ellerson said. “We gave up big plays on defense and we took some big hits in the penalty game. Against a good team, don't be surprised the score gets upside down."
Upside down and all around, which for the 12th-straight time against Navy represents Army’s outcome, this time a 34-7 loss Saturday at Lincoln Financial Field. Some, like the latest, have been routs. Some, late-game heroics proved the trick. As having to decide where a kid wants his flu shot, they all hurt.
The pain in this one really began the first two times Army had the ball. After deciding that season-long backup quarterback A.J. Schurr should get the start over Angel Santiago, Schurr fumbled on each of the Black Knights’ first two possessions. On the first, a sack caused a fumble; Army fullback Larry Dixon recovered the ball, but the result nevertheless was a 20-yard loss. The second time Army had the ball, Schurr fumbled after a short gain. Navy recovered and subsequently scored its first points. That was it for Schurr.
“We said going in that we expected to see both of them,” Ellerson said. “The conditions had it on the edge. We think that A.J. has some real upside and playmaking ability, but in these conditions, Angel has the big mitts. Four or five times this year we've been out there and the ball hasn't touched the ground. It was that kind of a game. When A.J. was struggling to keep the ball off the ground, we felt like that was our best chance to hold onto the ball, be patient and make some plays along the way. We wanted to see if we could tap into those dynamic plays that A.J. can make, that upside. We changed our mind, if you will, when we saw the conditions and A.J. struggling with it. Angel had the ball on the ground, too."
Indeed, Santiago did have two fumbles -- he recovered one, lost one -- and threw one interception. Army did play an inordinately sloppy game, fumbling five times (losing two) and committing four penalties for 50 yards.
"The first thing you have to do in a game like this is play without errors, delays and turnovers,” Ellerson said. “If you're going to have a chance against a good Navy team like that you have to be on the other side of the ledger when it comes to turnovers.”
As has been the case for more than a decade, the Black Knights did more than enough to lose, the Midshipmen did more than enough to win, and they were surely grateful for any help their century-plus rival wished to contribute.
“I’m just proud of our guys,” Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo said. “That’s hard to do against anybody 12 times, but for it to be against your rivals…we just stayed at the task at hand.”
Actually, those first points Navy scored could have proven to be a morale booster for Army. On the play immediately following linebacker Chris Johnson’s recovery of Schurr’s fumble, Navy fullback Quinton Singleton ran untouched for 58 yards, finally caught at the 4-yard line by Chris Carnegie. Three straight runs – two by Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds – accounted for only two yards, and the Middies settled for a 3-0 lead on Nick Sloan’s 20-yard field goal.
“Getting that stop after we allowed that big play, that could have been big,” Ellerson said. “Obviously, we have to score more points to be effective.”
Instead, it was Navy that continued to do the damage, and it was Reynolds that led the way. Navy’s first touchdown was set up in part when, after completing a short pass, Reynolds was hammered by defensive end Robert Kough, who was penalized 15 yards for unnecessary roughness. On the next play, Reynolds handed off to Noah Copeland, who was grazed as he broke through the line, then ran unbothered for a 39-yard touchdown with 8 minutes, 15 seconds left in the second quarter. Less than six minutes later, on its first play following an Army punt, Reynolds took it home from the Army 47 for a 17-0 lead.
“Coach [Ivin] Jasper [Navy’s offensive coordinator and quarterback coach] was telling the offense before the game that no matter how good or bad your season went before today, this game makes or breaks your season,” Reynolds said. “You could be 11-0, but if you lose you consider it a failure. This is our number-one goal every year to beat Army. Right after that it’s to win the Commander-In-Chief’s trophy. Practice gets turned up as soon as it’s time for Army. We call it ‘Army Camp’ amongst the players, it’s three weeks of grinding. We don’t practice indoors and we go at it every day and prepare because we know these guys are going to play us tough like they do every year. They played us tough today, too.”
Army’s two biggest plays of the game help result in its only score. On its second possession of the second half a 26-yard run by Santiago and a 29-yard pass completion to Xavier Moss helped bring the ball to the Navy 7. Terry Baggett rushed for three yards and Santiago the final four for the Black Knights’ only touchdown. Navy responded, thanks again, in part, due to another penalty for roughing Reynolds, this time after an incompletion. The Midshipmen got no further than the Army 16 and settled for another Sloan field goal, a 34 yarder.
Navy, 8-4, put the game away with touchdowns each of the next two times it had the ball, and, once again, the spotlight belonged to Reynolds. He ran the ball six straight times for 32 yards, the last one an 11-yard score. Santiago fumbled on the first play following the kickoff, and Reynolds scored the final touchdown, a 1-yard run with 46 seconds remaining in the game.
The sophomore has 29 rushing touchdowns, breaking the single-season NCAA mark for a quarterback previously held by Ricky Dobbs (Navy, 2009) and Collin Klein (Kansas State, 2011), both of whom had 27.
“Coming into the game I wasn’t too concerned about the record. If I broke it, I broke it, if not oh well,” Reynolds said. “My main concern was getting the W. If that meant me getting zero touchdowns and everybody else running and having a field day, that’s good with me. I came in with an open mind and not too worried about the record because if you begin to press that’s usually when you make mistakes. So I just let the game come to me.”
It didn't work that way. Reynolds ran 30 times for 136 yards. He also caught a 2-point conversion pass on a trick play following his second touchdown.
His third touchdown gave him 176 points for the season, breaking the school record of 174 set by Bill Ingram in 1917. Yes, Niumatalolo thought about Reynolds just killing the clock in a game that had already been locked up.
“I got a kid that has busted his butt this year, he has had a great season, has the opportunity to break the record,” he said. “That thought did cross my mind, to take a knee. As I said, I have great respect for Coach Ellerson and everybody on that side. But on my side, I had a kid who has a chance to break a record.”
Which he did. The records are beginning to pile up in general. The 12 straight victories are obviously a record. And the victory was also the sixth straight against Army for Niumatalolo since he was hired as head coach. That ties the record set by his immediate predecessor, Paul Johnson.
Conversely, the loss was Ellerson’s fifth straight to Navy since taking over in 2009. Those flu shots don’t get any less painful.
“Before the game I told them they paid this price,” said Ellerson, whose team finished 3-9 after losing its final five games. “They have invested so much in this team. They are committed to one another. They are bonded like you can't believe. When this terrible feeling we have in our stomach diminishes, what will be left is these bonds they've forged with one another. I told them how proud I am to have been a part of their journey, be part of what brought them together and be part of what put their feet on the path they've chosen. I couldn't be prouder of who those guys are and what they've taken on."