- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 10, 2011


There’s nothing in sports quite like an Army-Navy football game. The color and pageantry, emotion and ebullience, are marvelous to behold. And when the nation’s two highest elected officials are in attendance, as President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden were Saturday at FedEx Field, we are reminded anew just how important and unique is this 111-year-old sporting spectacle. The problem, you see, is that they insist on playing a 1925 football game as part of it.

After losing the previous nine editions of the hallowed rivalry by double-digit margins, Army regained a modicum of pride this time by holding Navy to a 27-21 triumph. Nonetheless, the teams’ archaic offensive play remained ridiculous in an era where three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust tactics have mercifully vanished elsewhere.

There should be no quarrel with coaches Ken Niumatalolo of Navy and Rich Ellerson of Army preferring run-oriented option schemes if this best suits their personnel. But apparently neither has heard of Notre Dame players Knute Rockne and Gus Dorais, who first made the forward pass a significant weapon 98 long years ago. (In a game against Army, no less.)

With 10:27 left in the first half, Navy quarterback Kriss Proctor apparently defied his coaches by fading back to try — egad! — his first pass. He was promptly sacked for an 8-yard-loss, which just goes to show you something or other. The ensuing suspicion at that point was that senior Proctor might not attempt another aerial until he next plays one of those Madden video games.

If then.

OK, so not every team has to throw the ball as if Aaron Rodgers or Drew Brees were crouching under center. But, in Annapolis or West Point these days, a pass is merely something a Midshipman or Cadet might receive for good behavior.

The baseball equivalent might be a managerial return to dead-ball era strategy, i.e. playing for one run at a time. In basketball, coaches might urge 6-foot-2 centers to hoist them two-handed set shots. And in tennis, why wooden racquets would be the cat’s meow.

True, Army came in leading the nation in rushing with 355 yards a game. That sounds impressive until you realize the Black Knights’ run-pass ratio was nearly 8-1, whereas most college and pro teams seek something of a balance.

Unlike the halcyon days when Army’s Glenn Davis-Doc Blanchard tandem and Navy’s Roger Staubach were masters of every defense they surveyed, the service academies now play almost strictly for self-respect, plus an occasional bowl invitation. This doesn’t mean their epic annual affair need be dull. But it frequently is because of the coaches’ insistence on following the same old offensive grinds.

In fact, their 112th meeting (and first in the Washington area) turned momentarily tense in the second half after downtrodden Army rallied from two touchdowns back to forge a 14-14 tie at intermission. And when Black Knights quarterback Trent Steelman completed a wildly daring 10-yard pass on Army’s second scoring drive, there was cause for rejoicing as well as astonishment among folks who love the U.S. Military Academy.

Yet Navy needed just 2:17 to reassert temporary command after Alexander Teich returned the second-half kickoff 47 yards, the unsinkable Proctor doing scoring honors with a 2-yard run for his second TD of the afternoon.

This produced expectations in some quarters of further clear sailing for the Navy, which in turn forced Steelman to desperate measures on Army’s next series. As the gathered throng of 80,789, gaped and gawked, he threw — threw! — a 25-yard touchdown pass to slotback Malcolm Brown that got the Black Knights even again and raised hopes of a titantic tussle rather than a banal blowout.

Alas, it was not to be. After Jon Teague sent Navy back in front with field goals of 23 and 44 yards for a 27-21 lead early in the fourth quarter, Army had no offensive steam left. On the Black Knights’ best thrust thereafter, Steelman was nailed in his tracks by linebacker Matt Warrick on fourth-and-7. Game over.

You could say Army achieved a moral victory by holding the Midshipmen to a six-point victory, but we all know what moral victories are worth. In other words, wait till next year — or next decade.

And as President Obama left the premises, he might have well reflected that the offensive M.O. employed by both Niumatalolo and Ellerson is the same as that mounted by Speaker John Boehner and his GOP congressional troops against many administration proposals this election season.

Thou shalt not pass.



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