West Point junior quarterback Trent Steelman looked crushed in the post game press conference. He appeared to take the 27-21 loss to Navy as hard if not harder than the Army seniors.
Steelman came back to play from ankle and knee injuries which plagued the second half of his season. Prior to that he had started 32 straight games for Army, every game since the first game of his freshman year. When he has been injured during games, the trainers have to lock away his helmet to keep him off the field.
During games, more than any other Black Knight Steelman has inherited the Steve Anderson role of running up and down the bench exhorting his teammates to play harder and give every amount of effort. Anderson was the emotional "holler guy" type linebacker who captained last year's team to a bowl victory.
"Getting tired of almost," commented Steelman at the press conference looking frustrated, a bit dazed, like a player who had given his all and found it was not quite enough. As a junior he knows there will only be one more opportunity in his career to "Beat Navy" and it means twelve months of hard preparation amid all the requirements at the Academy.
No one at West Point wants to leave the program without beating Navy at least once.
This was a game that Army had a chance to win. They scored two second-quarter touchdowns to match the first quarter surge of two scores by Navy. They came back with a touchdown drive in the third quarter to match Navy's score off the second half kickoff. But it was not enough. Army lost three fumbles, which put them in a hole in both halves, forcing their defense to stay on the field.
Army head coach Rich Ellerson was asked if the close score indicated the two teams were closing in talent and competitiveness, he responded, "Sometimes being an inch away seems like a mile."
About his slotback Ray Maples, Ellerson said, "In practice he will hold on to a pitch 1,000 times."
Maples lost control of a first-half pitchout while being tackled by Jabaree Tuani. Navy converted that into a 26-yard touchdown drive in just six plays with a run by QB Kriss Proctor.
On their first drive of the day, the Middies ground out a 13-play, 58-yard drive that was stopped when Army defensive lineman Jacob Drozd forced a fumble of quarterback Kriss Proctor at the Army 19.
In the second quarter, down 14-0, Army made a comeback and took back the momentum in the game. The Corps of Cadets was roaring in the stands. Trent Steelman ran 34 yards for a touchdown, looking like the leg injuries that have bothered him all year were non-existent.
After the Army defense held Navy to a three-and-out and forced a punt, Army went back to work, completing a 63-yard drive in seven plays with slotback Malcom Brown running five yards for a score to tie the game 14-14 at the half.
Possibly the moment that will be remembered from this game was Navy senior fullback Alexander Teich deciding to take the second half kick for Navy him self. Teich took the kickoff and ran up the right side for 48 yards, crossing midfield to the Army 48. Navy went ahead 21-14 in five plays, capped off by a two yard run by Proctor.
Army came back and scored on their next drive with Steelman completing a 25-yard touchdown pass play to Brown. It looked liked Army had the momentum back.
Then another opportunity for Army. On Navy's next drive, Army linebacker Steve Erzinger forced Proctor to fumble, wich was recovered by Geoffrey Bacon. Army took over at the Navy 45. On a Dixon five-yard run, Army was called for a chop block, which moved the ball back into the Army half of the field. Army ended up punting, missing a chance to take the lead.
On the next drive, the Army defense would not break but could not get off the field. The Middies went on an 18-play drive, but could not score a touchdown. They settled for a 40-yard Jon Teague field goal. Navy led 24-21 with 12:03 left. It looked like Army might take the ball and march down the field once again. The Corps of Cadets was again roaring with anticipation of a drive that could give Army their first win in the series in 10 years.
Then another disaster happened—the kind that has plagued Army in recent seasons: second-half turnovers at the worst time.
On the Navy kickoff, otherwise steady Army return man Scott Williams caught the kick, ran 16 yards, and then fumbled, resulting in Navy taking over on the Army 27. The West Point defense was called on again to make a stop, and they delivered. After three attempts and no gain, Teague was again called on to kick a field goal, and he delivered with a kick from 44 yards out.
Navy led 27-21with 10:26 to go. Army was still in the ballgame.
After Williams took the Navy kick to the Army 22, Steelman went to work. Steelman ran for 10 yards on the first play. Ray Maples converted a 3rd-and-1. Steelman completed a pass to Davyd Brooks for 13 yards to the Navy 40. It was getting exciting. Maples and Dixon combine to run for another first down at the Navy 28.
Then Army bogged down.
On 2nd-and-6 from the 24, Steelman was sacked by Matt Warwick for a loss of five. Steelman got four back on third down. With time winding down in the game, the 4th-and-7 play was for the game. Steelman was tackled behind the line of scrimmage again by Warwick and struggled for only a yard.
Navy took over on downs with 4:31 left.
Army had a chance if they could stop Navy quickly. They almost did. On 4th-and-1 at their own 48, Navy lined up. They tried to get Army to jump, and they did. The right side of the Army line jumped offside. Navy had a first down and effectively the game. On the next set of downs, Navy was forced to punt, but Army had time for one play. After a Steelman to Brooks pass, time ran out on the Black Knights.
After the game, Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo expressed pride in his team and the leadership of his seniors,
"I am so proud of our seniors. Very few Navy players have ever been able to say that they went 4-0 against Army, but these kids gave everything they had and they can say it. This game could have gone either way and I feel very fortunate to be sitting here [in winner's press conference]."
Army senior captain Steve Erzinger had a game high in tackles in the game and a forced a fumble, but he was disappointed afterward. That is really that the right word. "I will have to live with the defeat," he said. Certainly a win over Navy would ihave been a wonderful capstone to his solid career at Army.
The game was marked by the appearance of many senior military officials of the Army, Navy and Marine Corps. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Martin Dempsey was there, along with Army Chief of Staff General Raymond Odierno.
The big visitor for the day was President Barack Obama, who flipped the ceremonial coin before the game. In another Army-Navy game tradition, President Obama left the Navy stands at halftime and crossed the field between lines of Cadets and Midshipmen. On the Army sideline, the President then shook hands with many Cadets and had his picture taken with the Army cheerleaders.
All in all a great day to be at Fed Ex Field. There is something really special to see the Corps of Cadets on one side of the field and the Navy Midshipman on the other. Army is disappointed about the loss; that is an understatement. It will sit with them for a long time.
Both teams can take pride in how they competed, and the inspiration and moment of fun they provided to members of the military watching from points all around the world.
Ken Kraetzer covers Army football and Iona basketball for WVOX 1460 AM in New Rochelle, NY and Sons of the American Legion Radio. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained first-hand.