PHILADELPHIA — Everything you could have asked for, happened.
Amid the month of December, skies simulated a warm, refreshing vibe of spring.
Red, white and blue blooded fans filed through the gates and into the green folded seats of Lincoln Financial Field, supporting which ever academy they may be championing.
Traditional pregame festivities ran it’s course — the Cadets marched onto the decorated field in unison, followed by the Midshipmen.
Skydivers glided down from the spring-filled sky with American flags rippling in the breeze. Then the national anthem, and a flyover.
Records aside, it was the 116th Army-Navy game, or what many have billed, “America’s Game”. And that’s exactly what it climaxed to be.
It will go down as a game for the ages.
Mustering enough fight that was left, Ken Niumatalolo battled tears that entered his eyes moments after celebrating the programs 14th straight win over Army, 21-17.
“We knew the records wouldn’t be a factor in this game,” Niumatalolo said. “I thought (Army) did a great job. Things didn’t look good for us, but we have some resilient kids. This is more than a football game, these kids are going to make a sacrifice to serve our country.”
Despite carrying a minus 22-point line and two wins into the touted classic, Army brushed that aside and rose to the occasion.
On the opening offensive drive, the Black Knight front-7 stuffed Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds on a designed run to force a quick punt.
Edgar Poe then received a trio of pivotal blocks and raced 50 yards to set up Army with pristine field position at the Navy 40-yard line.
The Black Knight’s marched down to the 14-yard line to set up a Daniel Grochkowki 32-yard field goal to give Army the first lead, 3-0.
Reynolds then showed why he’s one of the most dynamic playmakers college football has ever seen. On the ensuing drive, he executed a triple-option run read to perfection and zoomed up the gut, 58-yards for a touchdown.
“It was just one of those instinct reads,” Reynolds said, who finished the night going 6 for 14 passing with 113 yards and one touchdown through the air. He also rushed for 136 yards on the ground and two touchdowns on 21 carries. “Something told me to just pull it, and I went that way.”
On that run, Reynolds broke the record for most rushing touchdowns in Division-1 history.
And just when you think he’s shown you enough to make him a fan favorite, he set even more records — the most touchdowns in the history of the Army-Navy game (seven), school record for career passing touchdowns (30), and becoming the only Navy quarterback to defeat Army four times.
“Hats off to him,” Niumatalolo said. “He’s had a remarkable career, well he has one more game with us. Just a great football player. But off the field, he’s an even better leader.”
When Reynolds had an answer, Army seemed to be unfazed, taking a seven play 82-yard drive down the field that was capped off by a 29-yard touchdown run by freshman running back Tyler Campbell. It happened to be his first touchdown of his collegiate career.
The Cadet faithful had ignited. Right then and there a classic was in the making.
Reynolds engineered a 50-yard drive, 35 coming on one scramble, minutes into the second quarter. The quarterback then muscled into the end zone from one yard to push Navy ahead once more, 14-10.
“My number one goal was just winning,” Reynolds said. “It’s great to win the last three, but if we didn’t get this one, it would have really hurt.”
The back and forth slug-fest carried on.
Instead of running the clock out, and receiving the ball at the half, Army quarterback Chris Carter floated a rainbow 39-yard touchdown pass to a wide open Poe. With 30 minutes of football in the books, Army took a 17-14 lead and upset aspirations into halftime.
“The seniors took over the halftime speech,” Niumatalolo said. “When it comes from the players, it just means more.”
The Navy defense came out of the second half and forced four straight Army 3-and-outs.
With one pass, momentum shifted. Reynolds zipped a 10-yard slant to Jamir Tillman that he took 40-yards more to make it 21-17, Navy, and what would be the game-deciding score.
Army had it’s chances to prove triumphant, but didn’t capitalize.
At the start of the fourth quarter, a 29-yard field goal was blown wide left.
A drive that was sustained to the Navy 33-yard line, was ended by a botched snap.
Two late interceptions that halted productive series’s may very well be the two biggest mishaps that will leave scars.
“We just couldn’t afford to make those errors,” Army head coach Jeff Monken said. “Sometimes, you just get beat. But that’s our job at West Point, to build warriors. I told all of my guys that I love them, just came a little short.
It is America’s game.
They met at the center of the field, arms around each other, singing the Army alma mater, followed by the Navy.
While the rivalry is as deep as any other, these two come together as one unit. Away from the field of competition, they serve side-by-side, brother-by-brother in the most deadliest, courageous game of them all: national defense.
“Our country is in good hands,” Niumatalolo said. “There’s some bad things happening in the world right now. To know those guys are going to go out and protect us should makes us sleep a little bit better.”
Army’s Edgar Poe finished with 121 receiving yards and one touchdown on five receptions. Navy’s Jamir Tillman caught five passes for 102 yards and one score of his own.
You can follow me on Twitter at @k_fadd and Maryland Sports Access at @MDSportsAccess.
Army 10, 7, 0, 0 – 17
Navy 7, 7, 7, 0 – 21
Army, Daniel Grochkowski 32-yard field goal, 8:31, Army 3 Navy 0
Navy, Keenan Reynolds 58-yard run (Grebe kick), 7:58, Navy 7 Army 3
Army, Tyler Cambell 29-yard run (Grochkowski kick), 4:10, Army 10 Navy 7
Navy, Keenan Reynolds 1-yard run (Grebe kick), 12:18, Navy 14 Army 10
Army, Edgar Poe 39-yard pass from Chris Carter (Grochkowski kick), 2:08, Army 17 Navy 14
Navy, Jamir Tillman 50-yard pass from Keenan Reynolds (Grebe kick), 5:51, Navy 21 Army 17