- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 13, 2009


President Obama showed excellent judgment Saturday in skipping his first Army-Navy football game as commander in chief.

For one thing, Philadelphia’s famously fierce fans might have had more than a few negative comments about the Prez receiving the Nobel Peace Prize so soon after announcing he would dispatch about 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan.

For another, the game was something of a stinker - at least for spectators who expected a reasonable amount of offensive pyrotechnics from two triple-option teams.

The Midshipmen finally won it 17-3, leaving a sellout crowd of 69,541 at Lincoln Financial Field somewhat less than breathless. A great deal less, come to think of it.

By losing an eighth straight to Navy, the Black Knights (5-7) blew a chance to tackle Temple in the hardly classic EagleBank Bowl on Dec. 29 at RFK Stadium. This honor, if that’s the word, now falls to UCLA, and we can only hope the Bruins bring their winter coats for a date that late.

A kind word probably should be offered, though, for Army, which has regained a semblance of respectability this season after going 30-108 in the previous 12. The Black Knights’ mini-comeback should be applauded by even the most ardent Navy supporters, because the grotesquely one-sided recent nature of the rivalry - was threatening to render “America’s Game” irrelevant on the national sporting scene. (Navy’s previous seven victories in the series were by a whopping average of 29 points.)

Such a verdict already had been issued by CBS, which urged the service academies to conduct this season’s presumed mismatch on the latest date since 1931 so that TV room could be cleared for a batch of conference championships on December’s first weekend.

Yet in his first season at the West Point rudder, if you’ll pardon a militarily incorrect word, coach Rich Ellerson has awakened Army in a manner that eluded immediate predecessors Stan Brock and Bobby Ross.

On this day, the Black Knights even claimed a 3-0 halftime lead, mainly because the Mids kept hurting themselves. Two holding penalties nullified startling aerial gains of 58 and 34 yards by quarterback Ricky Dobbs, who passes the ball only when necessary.

No surprise there considering that game MVP Dobbs has rushed for a NCAA-record 24 touchdowns this season and more than 1,000 yards. When it comes to lugging the ball, this guy has more twists and turns than a whole shelf load of mystery novels.

In fact, neither team tried a pass until 19 plays had been run in the first quarter. Army quarterback Trent Steelman was the first to do so and thus encouraged by such daring, Dobbs followed suit a bit later. Bad move. Linebacker Steven Erzinger intercepted and returned the ball 26 yards, setting up Alex Carlton’s 23-yard field goal for the Black Knights’ first and last points.

There was reason to wonder, during the first 30 minutes, whether Navy was looking ahead to its engagement against Missouri in the Texas Bowl on New Year’s Eve. The Mids lost a fumble in Army territory early in the second quarter. Then came those damaging holding penalties, unexpected gaffes by the NCAA’s least penalized team.

The second half was pretty much all blue-and-gold, enabling the Mids to stretch their lead in the 119-year-old series to 54-49-3. But there were enough positive moments for Army to leave folks at West Point feeling that the worst was over for a program that hasn’t seen a winning season since 1996. And as Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo noted afterward, this annual confrontation is about much more than football anyway.

“We congratulate and have great respect for Army,” Niumatalolo said. “We know what their kids are going through. I’m in awe of [all of] these young men.”

He referred, of course, to their dedication in serving their country in times of peril around the globe. In a year or two, some of Saturday’s children might find themselves defending freedom in Iraq, Afghanistan or some other terribly hot spot.

“Football takes a back seat to that stuff,” Niumatalolo said emphatically. Unlike 99 percent of his peers who pretend that the world revolves around inflated pig bladders, he sounded as if he meant it.

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