PHILADELPHIA – Navy safety Wyatt Middleton snatched the ball and Army’s hopes of ending Navy’s nine game winning streak against the Black Knights out of midair and returned it for a 98-yard touchdown Saturday in Navy’s 31-17 win in the 111th Army Navy game.
The senior safety told Navy defensive coordinator Buddy Green before the game he would score a touchdown after Navy’s defense had gone the entire season without one. This was Middleton’s first career touchdown after starting 47 straight games.
“What’s ironic is that before the game I told Coach Green I was going to score a touchdown. I’m pretty sure he was like ‘OK’ but that’s what I want to hear because he had been emphasizing defensively we hadn’t scored a touchdown all season,” Middleton said.
Before Middleton’s touchdown, Army had grasped momentum in the game and looked to cut an early 17-point Navy lead down to three before halftime. Shoulders slouched on Army’s sideline as Middleton lifted the ball in the air near the 10-yard line and trotted in for the score.
Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo called it the turning point of the game after Navy quarterback Ricky Dobbs fumbled three times in the first half and let Army back in the game.
“They had us reeling there. We preached all week about not giving them a short field, and we gave them exactly that,” Niumatalolo said.
Navy’s win means a sixth straight class of Midshipmen will graduate and commission this year without having seen a loss to Army.
“It means a lot to cap a career off beating Army which ever since we come from day one into the academy it’s go Navy beat Army. It’s embedded in us. Even people who don’t play sports it’s the same kind of thing and it’s a way of life,” Dobbs said.
Navy got out to a 17-point lead relying more on Dobbs’ arm and not his typically reliable legs. He finished with 186 yards passing and two touchdowns including a 77-yard bomb in the first quarter to sophomore slotback John Howell.
However, Navy went back to the run in the fourth quarter to finish Army off with a nine minute touchdown drive that put them up by three touchdowns and extinguished any hopes of an Army comeback.
“We needed that,” Niumatalolo said about the drive. “Give them credit, they came back after that drive and battled and then our guys responded.”
Navy’s win caps a nine win regular season – one which started with such high expectations. It was a season, though, the Navy seniors worried could have slipped away from them after a disappointing loss to rival service academy, Air Force. After the loss, Middleton called a team meeting.
“At that early in our season after such a traumatic event like that seasons can easily go down hill or it can sky rocket up. As a senior class we definitely knew that … so I just had to make sure as well as the other seniors had to make sure everyone was on board,” Middleton said.
Navy has since relied on their star quarterback who led them to wins over Notre Dame and now Army compiling over 2,500 rushing yards and scoring 48 total touchdowns.
It’s not a career that Dobbs said was always smooth sailing. He’s often been frustrated learning an offense he wasn’t initially comfortable with and one, despite the success, he is still learning.
“To be honest the entire time has been frustrating from the very beginning even to now but I think the dynamic of it has changed because in the beginning this offense I wasn’t comfortable … Now that I have come into my own and it’s still a struggle … It’s a constant struggle but I wouldn’t trade it for the world because looking back it has been remarkable,” Dobbs said.
Army coach Rich Ellerson continues to rebuild what was a struggling football program just two years ago. Army hadn’t scored a touchdown against Navy since 2006 until Army quarterback Trent Steelman threw a 5-yard touchdown pass to slotback Malcolm Brown.
Ellerson said his team needs to learn to put it all together and play a complete game in order to beat teams like Navy.
“Our guys are in there looking at each other like ‘we can hang with this bunch.’ ‘We can compete there.’ But that’s not the same as doing it, or not doing it for 60 minutes,” Ellerson said about his team who will play in a bowl game for the first time since 1996.
Steelman, who started last year as a freshman, committed the costly fumble in the second quarter, but he appeared much more poised in his second Army-Navy game leading the Black Knights on three scoring drives. He finished with 74 rushing yards on 19 carries and threw for another 128 and two touchdowns.
He called his goal line fumble to Middleton a “heartbreaker.”
“I value the ball more than anything in the world and to see that slip out like that and turn it around for a touchdown was a heartbreaker,” the sophomore quarterback said.
Army linebacker Steve Anderson, who didn’t play in last year’s game because of an injured knee, led Army’s defense with a sack and two fumble recoveries in the first half as he tried to will his defense to bottle up Dobbs and Navy’s triple option attack. The senior captain will graduate, though, without ever tasting victory against any of Army’s service academy rivals.
“I didn’t beat Air Force and I didn’t beat Navy in my entire career here and that’s something I’ll never get over. I consider myself a competitor. As a team, we consider ourselves able to win any game we go into. Today just wasn’t our day,” he said.