Once unimaginable, Army now owns rivalry series against Navy

WEST POINT, N.Y. — The fog rolled in before kickoff and turned the field at Michie Stadium into a soupy mess by the end of the first quarter, leading any confused spectators to rely on a trustworthy rule of thumb to follow the action: Whatever just happened — and what happened, exactly, may have been anyone’s guess — was very likely a running play.

"This was the best game that nobody got to see," Army coach Jeff Monken said. "The fog rolled in and it almost seemed appropriate for the battle that was taking place out there. I mean, it was a slugfest. Three plays and punt. Three plays and punt. You just kept battling back and forth."

Army and Navy combined for eight pass attempts, completing only two for 37 yards. The Black Knights and Midshipmen instead combined for 88 running plays for 242 yards, leaning on offensive schemes borrowed from college football’s black-and-white era in a game as ugly as the conditions.

Not that beauty points matter in this annual rivalry. Keyed by a smothering defense, the Black Knights’ 15-0 win was the program’s fourth in five tries against Navy, highlighting the new dynamic in the series after the Midshipmen’s long run of dominance.

"It was a bare-knuckle brawl and we’re fortunate that we came out on top," Monken said.

Jeff Monken and the Army Black Knights celebrate their win over the Navy Midshipmen.

But the game was beautiful, in its own strange, confounding and unique way. It was only the third game in the Bowl Subdivision since at least 2000 to end 15-0, joining South Carolina's win against Mississippi State in 2006 and Alabama-Birmingham's win against Central Florida in 2008. 

Army's defense outscored Navy on its own, notching a safety in the fourth quarter to push the Black Knights' lead to 12-0. Army passed once in the first quarter and then never again, seemingly confident in the fact that once was enough given the state of its own defense and the consistently terrible performance of the Navy offense.

"There is not really much to say," said Navy fullback Nelson Smith. "We had four first downs the whole game. We couldn’t move the ball, couldn’t get into the end zone.”

Originally scheduled for Philadelphia, the game was moved to Michie Stadium due to state restrictions on attendance. Instead, Army played host as the designated home team for the 121st meeting, putting the series in a non-neutral site for the first time since 1943 and the sixth time overall.

"This is our house," said Army linebacker Amadeo West. "We’re going to defend our house. I couldn’t be prouder of our team for defending our turf."

Read a sign strung over the front row of seats as Navy players filed into the locker room: "Have a fun bus ride home."

West Point cadets hold a sign taunting the visiting Navy Midshipmen during the second half at Michie Stadium.

Ranked fourth nationally in yards allowed per game, thanks in large part to a ball-control offense that typically dominates the time of possession, Army's defense gave up just 117 yards, the program's stingiest performance since holding Fordham to 86 yards in 2011. The shutout was the Black Knights' first against the Midshipmen since 1969.

"I think everyone believed we were going to keep them out of the end zone," Army linebacker Jon Rhattigan said. "I feel very proud just to be part of this defense. We focused on the plan we had going into the game.

"We did it with straight aggression. We had a mentality that they were not going to get into the end zone."

Army ran for just 134 yards, the program's fewest in a win since at least 2008, and posted just eight first downs, the fewest in a game regardless of result since losing to Duke in 2016. 

"The defense played well enough for us to win. That has been the story the last three weeks," Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo said. "Those are three back-to-back-to-back weeks that our defense played well and we laid an egg on offense. We have to do some soul searching and looking at what we are doing."

As recently as five years ago, the idea that Army would be the dominant team in this rivalry would've been almost impossible to believe, given Navy's complete ownership of the series for more than a decade. Upon hiring former coach Paul Johnson in 2002, the Midshipmen embarked on a 14-game winning streak that was maintained by Johnson's successor, Niumatalolo, and continued even after Army hired Monken away from Georgia Southern in 2013.

Monken lost his first two, though the gap seemed to close: Navy won 17-10 in 2014 and 21-17 a year later, leading an emotional Monken to say postgame of the 2015 loss, “On these fields of friendly strife be strewn the seeds of victory."

The series has officially turned firmly in the Black Knights' favor. The 15-point margin of victory Saturday was Army's largest against Navy since a 27-7 win in 1986. The Black Knights hadn't won at least four of five since winning five straight from 1992-96. Across the past five seasons, Navy's 31-7 win in 2019 is the aberration.

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"We’ve been living off of that 31-7 loss last year," said Army quarterback Tyhier Tyler, who ran for a team-high 96 yards and had the game's only touchdown. "It gave me chills, how happy the seniors were. Just to see the emotion from the coaches, everyone."

In a larger sense, Army has replaced Navy as the most successful of the three service academies. Since the start of the 2016 season, Army is 42-20 with four bowl bids and one Top 25 finish. Over the same span, Navy is 33-30 with one ranked finish, albeit against a far more difficult schedule as a member of the American Athletic Conference. The head-to-head results boost Army's case.

Navy's recent inconsistencies stand in contrast to the program's former steady stream of success. This will be the Midshipmen's second losing season in three years after posting just one losing finish from 2003-17. After ranking 12th nationally in scoring in 2019, this year's offense has scored a combined 13 points in its last three games is tied for 121st out of 127 teams. Six of the Midshipmen's seven losses have come by double digits.

The roles have been reversed: Army is basking in success; Navy is searching for answers. Once nearly impossible to imagine, the Black Knights have reversed nearly a generation of futility and now own the rivalry against the Midshipmen.

"We have never struggled on offense like this before," Niumatalolo said. "We have to take a really deep look at what we are doing and how we are doing things. How we are teaching it; how we are coaching it."