It wasn’t the greatest ever played, but Saturday’s 124th Army-Navy football game had a little bit of everything for the sold-out crowd of 65,878. Ultimately, Army’s tenacious goal-line stand in the closing seconds sealed a 17-11 triumph at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass. It was the first time “America’s Game” was played in New England.
Fittingly, it was the defense that powered the Black Knights’ win. All year long, the defense had kept Army (6-6) in close games and on occasion sparked victory. – including causing and recovering six turnovers in a win against previously unbeaten Air Force last month and taking two more on Saturday.
“Why has it always gotta be like that?” asked winning Head Coach Jeff Monken. “It's always like that. We had a 14-point lead, and one second to go, they're standing there knocking on the door with a chance to tie the game up. Unreal. But I’m proud of our team. What a great win. Both teams just fought like crazy. That's what's great about the game. Their players played hard, played their hearts out. Ours did, too. Fortunately, we came up with a play there at the end and got away with the victory.”
By toppling teams from the other two military academies, the Black Knights won the Commander-In-Chief’s Trophy for 2023. The trophy will reside at West Point for the next year, and the team will also get the chance to go to the White House and meet the president.
Heading into intermission, Army took a 10-0 lead on junior Bryson Daily’s 4-yard touchdown pass to senior Tyson Riley and Quinn Maretzki’s 47-yard field goal in the final two seconds before the break. Both teams struggled for the first 12 minutes of the third quarter. A video review negated an apparent special team’s touchdown for Arm and ignited the dormant Navy offense, which marched 70 yards on 12 plays, highlighted by substitute senior quarterback Tail Lavatai’s 25-yard dash on the third snap. The drive stalled on the Army 19 and Nathan Kirkwood booted a 37-yard field goal to make it 10-3 just under 12 minutes into the second half.
Late in the fourth quarter, Army sophomore linebacker Kailb Fortner charged uncovered from the left and stripped the ball from Navy, scooping it up and sprinting 44 yards into the end zone to give Army a 17-3 lead with just 4:49 to play.
“It was a crazy, crazy surreal moment, but we called a play where I blitz off the edge and kind of contain or else a linebacker will come inside,” Fortner said. “I almost missed the defensive call, but I came and I hit the ball. It's almost kind of like I planned it the way it bounced in my hands. I saw on the Jumbotron a sea of gold (Army) jerseys behind me, and I kind of let off, but it was just a surreal moment.”
Navy (5-7) responded with exceptional controlled aggressiveness. Lavatai, who had missed the last four games with injury, masterfully completed consecutive passes of 13, 15, 14 and 14 yards – the last into the end zone to Jayden Umbarger to make the score 17-9. Playing for a possible victory, Navy attempted a two-point conversion, but Lavatai’s pass missed the mark. Lavatai, who relieved ineffective starting senior QB Xavier Arline in the second quarter, was inserted into his final game and became the offensive force Navy needed – completing 16 of 26 passes for 179 yards and rushing for 90 yards on 19 carries.
Army’s three-and-out on the ensuing possession gave the Midshipmen the ball on the Navy 27e with just 1:39 left. Lavatai, with senior poise, ran for nine yards and then completed passes of 28, 9, 10 and 11 yards to give Navy a first-and-goal on the Army 6 with just :30 and no timeouts left.
In a situation where a run that did not score would run out the clock, Lavatai took the snap, looked left and tossed a bullet that sailed beyond sophomore Brandon Chatman. On second down with :26 remaining, he tried to hit sophomore Eli Heidenreich in the middle, but the ball was just beyond reach.
On third down, sophomore Alex Tecza took two steps over the line of scrimmage and cut hard right toward the sideline. Lavatai led him perfectly as Tecza pulled the ball to his chest, but Fortner was in the right spot again, grasping the receiver around the torso and bringing him down on the Army 2 with 22 ticks of the clock left. One final desperate effort saw Lavatai keep the ball as the entire Navy squad tried to bunch together and push forward like a rugby scrum, but Army matched them man-for-man and kept Navy one yard short of the goal.
“Our kids fought their tails off, “Navy Head Coach Brian Newberry said. “We had a chance to possibly tie it there at the end. It's tough – you don’t have any timeouts, the clock’s running, you can't run anyone off field. These guys never quit. The experience they’ve had here is going to serve them well when they’re out leading young sailors and Marines when tough times come your way.”
The Black Knights took possession with :03 left, but there was no room to maneuver, so Daily (56 yards passing, 89 yards rushing) took the snap and danced around until the clock went to 0:00 before stepping out the back of the end zone to end the game with a two-point Navy safety.
Fortner led the Army defense with 10 tackles, while the team’s senior duo of Leo Lowin (nine) and Jimmy Ciarlo (seven) led by example and coordinated coverage that held the group from Annapolis to just 130 rushing yards, nine offensive points and 26:29 of possession. Junior Max DeDomenico grabbed the game’s only interception and ran it back yards to Navy’s defensive stars were junior Colin Ramos (game-high 16 tackles), sophomore Luke Pirris (nine) and senior Eavan Gibbons (nine).