I am a numbers guy. And a phrase I hear frequently as it relates to this is “the numbers don’t lie.” That might be true most of the time. But if you’re talking about the 2012 Army – Navy game, you’d be dead wrong.
To get a real appreciation for the impact of this particular game, you’d have to back about 10 years prior. So let’s do that right now before we go any further.
“The Streak” Begins
In Paul Johnson’s first season as head coach in 2002, the Mids absolutely demolished the Black Knights 58-12. During his six year tenure, Coach Johnson was 6-0 against Army, outscoring them by a staggering 240-71 margin.
That trend continued when Coach Niumatalolo took over in 2008. It included two consecutive games (’08 & ’09) where the Black Knights never even sniffed the end zone.
Things looked like they had changed in 2011. The Mids won to push “The Streak” to 10, but the score was tied at 21 going into the 4th quarter before Navy tacked on two late field goals to win 27-21.
Through the first four games of 2012, the Mids looked positively awful. They were 1-3 (including being shut out by San Jose St.) before somehow managing to come away with an overtime win against Air Force on the road.
Keenan Reynolds led that comeback and became the starting QB shortly after. The Mids won five of their next six games and headed into the Army game with a 7-4 record looking for their 11th straight win.
Army Tries To Answer
In the meantime, Army was on their fourth head coach in 10 years. The Black Knights finally committed to going with the triple option in 2009 and brought in Rich Ellerson with the hope of turning their fortunes around.
Ellerson had built Cal Poly in to a strong FCS program around the option attack. In just his second year, the Black Knights finished 7-6, and notched their first bowl win since 1996.
But they took a step back in 2011, winning only five games. The 2012 season wasn’t any better. Army did lead the nation in rushing that year, averaging 346.5 yards per game. But they only had two wins to show for their efforts.
The Black Knights felt pretty good about their chances against Navy, though. For the first time in years, they had an advantage at quarterback in terms of experience.
Four year starter Trent Steelman had become quite skilled at running Army’s version of the triple option. He rushed for over 1,200 yards and 17 touchdowns. Running back Ray Maples also posted a 1,000 yard season.
This was Steelman’s final go around against the Mids. He had the Black Knights on the doorstep in 2011 before coming up short in the 4th quarter. It seemed like everything pointed to the 2012 Army – Navy game as the one where he would finally break through.
So this game had all the makings of a great match up despite the disparity in the records. Navy was closing out the year strong with Reynolds running the triple option. But this was his first Army-Navy game, where he would experience a kind of pressure he had never felt before.
Strong Headwinds For The Mids
I’m not going to recap the entire game, but things could have easily gone sideways pretty early for Army. The Black Knights put the ball on the ground three times in the first half. Lucky for them, they recovered it twice.
And Navy missed out on some huge opportunities on offense. In the opening quarter, Reynolds misread the Army defense on the fullback dive to Noah Copeland. He pulled the ball at the last second and ended up taking a one yard loss.
If he’d handed it off, Copeland would have clear sailing on his way to a 59 yard touchdown. The Navy fullback was so frustrated he didn’t get the ball that he actually looked back at Reynolds as he was running downfield. You have to look closely at the replay, but you’ll see what I’m talking about if you go to the 35:02 mark in the video.
In the second quarter, Reynolds hit Gee Gee Greene with a 36 yard pass right at the goal line. Unfortunately, the normally sure-handed slotback couldn’t bring it in. It wasn’t the easiest of catches, but it’s one he was capable of making.
Navy had to settle for three points. And the first half finished in a 10-10 tie after Army bounced a field goal off the left upright and through just as time expired.
The Black Knights seemingly took control of the game in the second half, moving the ball with ease. But two excellent Navy defensive plays and two colossal mistakes by Army caused them to lose their grip on what should have been their first win since 2001. Here’s what happened.
Navy Defensive Play #1: Ryder Comes Up Big
When it comes to deciding who has the coolest name in Navy Football, it’s no contest. The conversation begins and ends with Wave Ryder.
The junior rover from Kaneohe, Hawaii had eight tackles in the 2012 Army – Navy game. But none was more critical than the one he made with about five minutes to go in third quarter.
On 1st & 10 from the Navy 11 yard line, Army running back Ray Maples took a handoff from Steelman and broke through the line. Ryder was the only defender between him and the goal line. And he came up with a big time open field tackle to bring Maples down three yards short of the end zone.
That turned out to be huge. Army was at the three yard line and needed two for a first down. But for some strange reason, they called a quarterback sneak. Who calls for a sneak when you need to get two yards? But wait . . . it gets worse.
Army Mistake #1: Confusion Proves Costly
On the next play, it looked like the Army left tackle moved early (no flag), and then never really carried out his block on his defender. Meanwhile, running back Malcolm Brown didn’t move at all. This was absolutely the wrong time to commit such huge mental errors, and the results were disastrous.
Steelman pitched the ball to Maples running left, but the Mids were already in the backfield and threw him for a two yard loss. The Black Knights had to settle for a field goal.
If Wave Ryder doesn’t make that touchdown saving tackle, Army’s mistakes would have never come into play. That said, their offense knew they should have had a touchdown and been up 17-10 despite Ryder’s heroics. A crucial mental mistake had cost them dearly. That’s why what happened next made their failure even tougher to swallow.
Navy Defensive Play #2: Blowing Up the Counter
Earlier in the game, Army had some success running the counter. In fact, on the game’s second play, Maples broke off a 22 yard run. But the Mids had pretty much neutralized it by the third quarter with some fine play by their nose tackle, Doug Ring.
Late in the third quarter, Ring left the game with an injury and was replaced by freshman Bernie Sarra. He would be front and center in the fourth quarter when the Mids were back on defense.
Great Results With The Option
The Army option attack was having a lot of success outside the tackles and on the permeter. Every once in a while, they called that counter play, but it wasn’t very productive. On one play, Army faked the counter and pitched the ball to Malcolm Brown for a nice 6 yard gain. The Mids totally bit on the fake and shut it down, which should have told the Black Knights to scrap the counter altogether.
I still can’t figure out why Army was so stuck on that play. Midway through the 4th quarter, they were moving the ball easily with their base option attack. At one point, four plays had produced 31 yards, putting them inside the Navy 24 yard line.
From there, the counter play got them one yard, and a run by Steelman picked up two more. Now the Black Knights faced a third and seven in need of a critical 1st down.
Another Weird Call
They never even got close. Just when you want to stick with what has been working, the Black Knights chose that moment to get cute. They came out with totally empty backfield and tried to run the counter out of that formation thinking it would confuse the Navy defense.
Bernie Sarra sure wasn’t confused though. He easily brushed aside the block from the running back and stopped the runner for just a two yard gain. It was a huge play by the freshman nose guard. The Mids held and forced another Army field goal try.
Their kicker yanked it left and missed badly. Now, the Mids came out for what would be a make or break drive with a freshman quarterback nursing a sore hamstring. But even after all that had happened, it was still Army’s game to lose.
Army Mistake #2: A Bad Pursuit Angle x 2
Reynolds first big test came almost right away on 3rd & 8 from the Navy 22 yard line. Out of shotgun, he fired a fastball to Geoffrey Whiteside for a 10 yard gain tot keep the drive going. Two plays later, the Navy QB from Antioch, TN came up with a play that would have made Harry Houdini proud.
On 2nd & 10, Reynolds took the snap and rolled right looking to complete a pass downfield. Two Army defenders ran him towards the sideline. But they both took the same angle of pursuit, which proved to be a big mistake for two reasons.
First, they took too direct a line. Secondly, by taking the same angle, Reynolds only had to beat the first guy to beat the second one. If they had contained him, it would have been 3rd and long and Navy would have been forced to come up with another big play.
Still, it was a sweet piece of running. Despite their mistake, both Army defenders looked like they had Reynolds dead to rights.
But he baited them by taking a slight step back as he was going right. Then he quickly darted around them, escaping down the sideline for a first down.
Two plays later, Navy had the lead. Reynolds hit Brandon Turner in perfect stride for a 49 yard completion along the sideline. He did the rest with his legs, slipping a tackle at the line and going in for the score from 8 yards out. The Navy faithful went absolutely bananas.
So Close . . .
It happened that quickly. In the space of exactly 64 seconds, Navy went from being three points down to four points up using just three plays. Army’s defense, which had played so well for the first 25 minutes of the second half, finally broke down. And the Mids once again had the lead in the 2012 Army – Navy game.
We all know what happened next, so I’m not going to get into any detail on Army’s last drive. But I will say that I am eternally grateful to Barry Dabney. He was the Navy nose tackle who recovered the botched exchange between Steelman and fullback Larry Dixon on the Navy 14 yard line with barely a minute to go in the contest.
That said, the game should have never come down to Army’s last possession. The Black Knights could have closed Navy out with just under seven minutes to go in the game. It all came down to their lack of execution in the most critical part field.
Red Zone Failures
A lapse in concentration cost the Black Knights an opportunity to go up by seven points in the third quarter instead of just three. Then, a questionable play call deprived them of a chance at a closer field goal (at the very least) midway through the fourth.
Both of these miscues took place in the red zone. The Black Knights missed out on seven potential points because of their inability to execute in the part of the field where it mattered most.
Sure, Army played exceptionally well between the 20s, but that’s not where the game is won. Assuming they continued to stop the Navy offense, the Black Knights should have been sitting on a 20-10 lead when the Mids got the ball with less than seven minutes left.
That meant they would have needed two scores to at least tie the game. Certainly possible if they recover an onside kick, but not likely based on the odds.
And as tough as things were for Navy most of the game, the offense made the most of their red zone opportunities. They only made it to that valuable piece of real estate three times all day. The results were touchdown, field goal, touchdown. That’s why the Mids won the 2012 Army – Navy game.
So “The Streak” made it to 11 games instead of ending at 10. The Black Knights had more first downs, better third down efficiency, more yards per rush, and they had over 100 more yards in total offense. But they still lost.
That’s because Army fell short in that oh – so – critical statistic known as red zone efficiency, while Navy was perfect. And that’s the number that usually matters most. Kind of strange that it doesn’t show up in the box score, don’t you think?
Until next time . . .