Monday, December 1, 2003

If winless Army somehow defeats bowl-bound Navy in their 104th meeting Saturday, might it be the biggest upset in series history?

Forget it — not even close.

Fifty-three years ago in Philadelphia, a 2-6 Navy team stunned second-ranked Army 14-2 in one of college football’s biggest surprises ever, ending the Cadets’ 28-game winning streak and heralding the Midshipmen’s impending revival after a 7-34-3 lean spell since 1946. It’s probably no coincidence that the 1950 Army-Navy game was the last of the annual showdowns not to be televised.

During World War II, both teams were strong. But while Army got better than ever after the war, Navy hit the skids. Eddie Erdelatz became the Mids’ coach in 1950 but worked no immediate wonders. Navy lost its opener to Maryland 35-21 in the dedication game at Byrd Stadium and was 1-6 before beating Columbia 29-7 in its last game before playing Army. The mighty Cadets, who had crushed eight opponents by an average margin of 33-4, were three-touchdown favorites.

A rout seemed probable, but this was, after all, the Army-Navy game — then one of the premier attractions in sports. Though there wasn’t much money on the Mids, smart bettors might have reflected that another poor Navy team tied third-ranked Army 21-21 in 1948. Of course, that was a fluke, right?

President and Mrs. Harry S. Truman were among 101,000 spectators at creaky old Municipal Stadium on Dec.2, 1950, sitting on the Navy side because the Mids were the home team. Though he smiled broadly as he posed for pregame pictures with captains Dan Foldberg of Army and Tom Bakke of Navy, the president could not have been in a happy mood. As he stepped off his train, the Philadelphia Inquirer greeted him with this headline on Korea: “MacARTHUR SAYS CHINA WAR IS ON: 16 Red Divisions Massing for Assault.”

Two months earlier, Truman conferred with Gen. Douglas MacArthur at Wake Island and was told the Chinese would not enter the stalemated “police action” in Korea. The following spring, Truman would fire the egotistical MacArthur for not following the administration’s wishes. As Navy and Army warmed up before the game, perhaps the president was cheered by the thought of young men doing battle only on a football field.

As Army awaited the kickoff on a bitterly cold day, part of its attention might have been diverted to Stillwater, Okla., where top-ranked Oklahoma was playing Oklahoma State. If the Cowboys could end the Sooners’ 30-game winning streak (they didn’t), Army would be national champion after presumably grinding Navy into the turf.

All these decades later, we don’t know whether Army was distracted or overconfident, but there was no doubt that Navy pushed the Cadets all over the field. Just before the game, an 813-foot good luck telegram signed by 824 Midshipmen was delivered to the players — and they certainly answered it in style.

After a scoreless first quarter, Navy found a needed hero in junior quarterback Bob Zastrow. In what amounted literally to his 15 minutes of fame, Zastrow sprinted through the middle of Army’s defense for a 7-yard touchdown, then tossed a 30-yard scoring pass to end Jim Baldinger, who made a spectacular leaping catch in the end zone just before halftime.

Zastrow and his offensive mates had to share attention with a tenacious, opportunistic defense. The Mids intercepted five passes by Army quarterback Bob Blaik, son of famed Cadets coach Earl “Red” Blaik. The defensive tone might have been set in the opening moments when Army recovered a fumble by Navy punter Bob Cameron at the Mids’ 22. Surprisingly, the fearsome Cadets could get no further than the 15 — and in those days, college teams did not have highly skilled field goal kickers.

At halftime, Army had one first down and 3 yards of offense. As it turned out, the Cadets’ only score came on a safety midway through the third period when Zastrow was trapped while trying to pass. In the fourth quarter alone, Army lost two fumbles and suffered three interceptions.

Though Army’s offense did its best to self-destruct with eight turnovers, this was no accidental victory for Navy. The dominant winners led in first downs 13-5 and in total yardage 268-139. Zastrow threw only 10 times, completing five. Army’s passers were just 6-for-25.

When the game ended, the brigade of Midshipmen went wild in celebration over the academy’s first victory over Army since 1943 while their dejected Army counterparts slunk silently away. Allison Danzig described the scene this way in the New York Times: “The 3,700 Midshipmen were in a delirium of happiness over the seeming miracle they beheld, storming down from the stands to raise Coach Erdelatz, Captain Bakke and their other heroes to their shoulders.”

No wonder.

The game did not spur instant success for Navy’s football program; the following season, the Mids dropped off slightly to a 2-6-1 record despite routing Army 42-7. But then Navy started to move. Over the next seven seasons, Erdelatz went 39-11-1 before departing to become the first coach of the American Football League’s Oakland Raiders.

For Army, the defeat presaged disaster on and off the field. The following April, 90 cadets — including Bob Blaik and 22 other football players — were dismissed from West Point for cheating. Army skidded to a 2-7-1 record in 1951 and was 4-4-1 in 1952 before Red Blaik rallied his troops to enjoy six more winning seasons until retiring. He finished with an 8-0-1 mark in 1958.

Blaik, who spent 18 years on the Plains, was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1964 with a 166-48-1 overall record at Dartmouth and Army. But a whiff of the old cheating scandal arose just two months ago when plans to erect a statue of him in a new sports center at West Point were abandoned because of protests. Instead it will stand, proudly if perhaps inappropriately, at the Hall of Fame in South Bend, Ind.

Blaik died in 1988 at 91. And we may speculate that over the final 38 years of his life, he asked himself repeatedly what had happened on Dec.2, 1950 — and why. Chances are, he never found a logical explanation.

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