Army co-captain Leo Lowin, playing his last game for the Black Knights after a stellar four-year career, knew that Navy was not going to quit. Even after the Midshipmen fell behind 17-3 midway through the fourth quarter, Lowin and all of his teammates, as well as the Army coaching staff, knew that Navy was not done.
But that is when the tough get going and the Army defense, for the second year in a row, stopped Navy at the goal line with just three seconds left in another Army-Navy classic to earn an oddly-thrilling 17-11 victory over the Midshipmen.
“They don’t quit and we don’t quit,” said Lowin, a senior linebacker. “They turned it on in the fourth quarter and our guys just held on. It is awesome to win this game and I am so proud of this team and to be an Army football player.”
Yes, as seems to be the standard for this annual contest where eight of the last 10 games have been decided by seven points or less, it came down to one play. With the clock running, Navy with no timeouts and the ball on the 2-yard line after sophomore Kalib Fortner stopped a third-down pass play, Navy quarterback Tai Lavatai tried to push the ball over the goal line for a touchdown and the chance for a two-point conversion that would tie the game and send it into overtime for the second year in a row. But, Lavatai was stopped short, by mere inches, of the goal line by an Army gang tackle, a call that was confirmed by instant replay, and Army took over possession on the six-inch line with three seconds left.
Army quarterback Bryson Daily, on strict orders from the coaching staff to run out of the back of the end zone when he saw no time left on the clock, took a safety that produced the final score. The game was played before 65,878 at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass. and a national television audience that must have been stunned that the game was not only this close at the end, but provided what has come to be expected as the usual drama near the end of this rivalry.
The victory over the Midshipmen team allowed Army to regain possession of the much-prized Commander in Chief trophy after losing it to Air Force last year. Army, which has defeated Navy six of the last eight times, finished the season at 6-6 with four straight wins, while Navy ended its campaign at 5-7.
“You can tell it was going to be a quarterback sneak,” says Lowin. “We just had to follow through. We could not ask for a better way to go out. It was part of our bend but don’t break mentally. The final drive was crazy, (our goal was to) knock them down and get the clock to triple zero. It was frantic at the end, to be honest with you, and to make sure that they do not get in.”
To be perfectly clear, the inspired play of the Army defense, led by Lowin (nine tackles) and and fellow senior co-captain Jimmy Ciarlo (seven tackles), won the game for the Black Knights. Junior defensive back Max DeDomenico stopped a Navy drive in the first quarter with an interception on the Army 5-yard line. Midway through the fourth quarter, and the Navy offense seeming to get its act together, Fortner sack-stripped Lavatai, picked up the ball and galloped untouched for an Army touchdown that put the Black Knights ahead, 17-3.
But as Lowin said, no one thought Navy was not done and the Midshipmen showed that they still had some life. Led by Lavatai, a senior who played huge role in Navy’s victory over the Black Knights two years ago, the Middies closed the gap to 17-9, when he hit Jayden Umbarger with a 14-yard touchdown pass with 2:47 left in the game. The Middies failed to convert a two-point conversion and Army’s lead was eight, 17-9. Noah Short recovered the onside kick for Army and the Black Knights looked to run out the clock to record the victory. But two illegal motion penalties by Army forced the Black Knights to punt the ball back to Navy, which took possession at its own 27-yard line with 1:40 left in the game.
Several key passes by Lavatai and runs, gave the Midshipmen the ball with under 30 seconds left inside the Army 10. But, on third down, Fortner stopped Umbarger at the two, forcing Lavatai desperate attempt to score.
Before the late fourth quarter hijinks, this was an uninspired offensive performance by both teams. After upsetting a good Coastal Carolina team three weeks ago at Michie Stadium by switching to an under-center option offense scheme, Army coach Jeff Monken decided to return to the shotgun option scheme it had used to mixed results in its first 10 games of the season. And, with the exception of its drive for a touchdown late in the first quarter and into the second quarter, it did not perform very well.
“I think if we look at the history of this game, we have been under center for a long time,” says Monken. “Prior to this season, I have coached 18 academy games as a coach at Army. The most we scored was 21 points and we did that twice. We know they are really good at stopping the under center stuff. I saw it during their game with Air Force where they just keep knocking their heads against each other. I got tired of ramming our head against the wall. I was just trying to find a different way to skin the same cat. I don’t know if this is the answer. We scored 10 points on offense today. I glad we have Bryson Daily.”
The game started slow. Early in the first quarter, Army failed to convert a fourth-and-one on their own 47-yard line. Navy drove down the field but DiDomenico’s second interception of the season, on the Army five, ended the Navy threat. DiDomenico returned the ball to the Army 35-yard line with 6:32 left in the first quarter.
It took 12 plays for the Black Knights to drive to down the field. Junior quarterback Bryson Daily found a wide open and uncovered Tyson Riley for a quick four-yard touchdown pass, his 14th of the season. That was followed by Quinn Maretzki’s extra-point and Army was leading, 7-0, less than a minute into the second half. “That was not the play at all,” says Daily, adding that Riley was calling for the ball before Navy’s defense was able to recover.
Though Lavatai, who has been battling injuries this season, entered the game for ineffective starter Xavier Arline, Navy could still not muster enough of an offense to put points on the board through three quarters. Lavatai was stopped on a fourth and two with 1:05 left in the half at the Army 35-yard line.
That gave Army a chance to score more points before halftime. Two completions by Daily plus his own 9-yard run (he had 89 rushing yards in the game) enabled Army to get to the Navy 30-yard line, where Maretzki hit his eighth straight field goal in Commander in Chief games to put Army ahead 10-0 at halftime.
The third quarter saw more of the same back and forth between the two teams, with each unable to mount much of a serious drive throughout the quarter. Finally, Nathan Kirkwood’s 37-yard field goal with 12:45 left in the game allowed Navy to cut the Black Knight lead to 10-3.
“Why does it always got to be like that, always,” said a proud Monken. “One of our coaches said on a headset, ‘Welcome to the Army-Navy game.’ I am proud of our team and what a great win this was. Their players played hard and ours did too. The turnovers were big too. Really happy to bring the Commander in Chief trophy back home. It is a source of pride for our program and our academy.”