EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Navy had its way with Army. It was good, aggressive, lucky and most of all angry with the idea the Black Knights had turned the tables in one of college football's biggest rivalries.
Quarterback Tai Lavatai ran for two touchdowns and Navy's defense limited Army to 57 second-half yards and a season-low 232 overall in a 17-13 victory Saturday in a game played at the Meadowlands to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
The win more than made the season for Navy (4-8), which faced 11 bowl-bound teams, tops in the nation. It also gave the Midshipmen only their second win in the last six games with their biggest rival, and they were not averse to boasting about it.
“We’ve faced a lot of adversity this year and guys keep consistently coming back and battling and not giving up,” senior linebacker Diego Fagot said. “Regardless of the score, we’re going to keep playing as hard as we can. We pride ourselves on that. I mean, I can’t say enough about how they think they’re the last of the hard. But it’s just not the case. They’re our little brothers.”
Navy dominated against bowl-bound Army (8-4) after giving up an early touchdown. It outgained them 278 yards to 232, including 196-124 on the ground against the nation's No. 2 rushing offense. The Mids held the ball for 34:25 and converted three big plays, including a fourth-down, fake punt in the fourth quarter that wasn't supposed to be a fake punt.
“It is good to be lucky,” Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo said of the 4-yard, first-down run by Fagot that set up Bijan Nichols' 43-yard field goal and kept alive a nearly nine-minute drive.
The up-back on a punt, Fagot said he made a line call because Army overloaded one side. Freshman center Ethan Nguyen mistook it for a fake call and Fagot got the first down despite being hit in the facemask with the snap.
“I mean, as a linebacker, you kind of already have tunnel vision, so I wasn’t really expecting it,” Fagot said. “So when I caught it, I just, I just started running straight.”
The Navy defense and Fagot also made the big play at the end, stopping Army quarterback Christian Anderson a yard short at the Navy 46 on fourth down with 91 seconds left.
“Honestly, it came down to that last one,” said Anderson, who scored on a 56-yard run on the fourth play from scrimmage. “I feel like we were moving the ball pretty OK. Then we got to the fourth down. I’ve just got to be able to make that run and get that conversion.”
Navy ran out the clock and then celebrated.
“Obviously, it's something we dream of,” Navy senior center Pierce Banbury said. “That is the reason I came to the Academy, to have that feeling. Right now, I am speechless.”
Cole Talley added field goals of 31 and 32 yards in helping Army take a 13-7 halftime lead. The Black Knights generated little after that in seeing their four-game winning streak snapped.
“They beat blocks, they just destroyed blocks," Army coach Jeff Monken said. "They just did a much better job defending us than we did attacking them on offense. We tried different things and none of them worked. We just got outplayed.”
After Anderson's touchdown, Lavatai capped an 11-play, 83-yard response by the Midshipmen, scoring on an 8-yard run on which fullback James Harris helped carry him the final 3 yards.
“I was thinking about jumping,” said Lavatai, who ran for 62 yards and was 4 of 6 for 82 yards passing. “Good thing I didn't because I probably would not have gotten there.”
Navy took over in the second half, taking the kickoff and going 74 yards in 10 plays with Lavatai scoring from 2 yards out. The drive featured a 26-yard run by Chance Warren on fourth-and-4 that got the ball to the 2. It was supposed to be a pass to Lavatai, but Warren saw it wasn't open so he ran.
“We were going to come out swinging,” Niumatalolo said. “We have been hearing a lot of stuff that the tables have turned and they were on top. We have never felt that. I think they are a very good football team. But our schedule is tough and that is by design.”
Navy's season is now over. Army will play Missouri in the Armed Forces Bowl in Texas on Dec. 22.
“This is the game we build up for year round," Army defensive back Cedrick Cunningham said. " We pretty much build our program to beat (Navy), so to lose to them is very disappointing.”
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