The recurring theme for Navy football in 2007 has been the dominance of the offense coupled with the struggles of the defense and special teams. In the one-game season that is the Army-Navy game, however, the opposite was true. Navy’s defense turned in its best performance of the year, and perhaps the best performance in the Paul Johnson era, as Navy thumped Army 38-3. As you’ve no doubt heard, the win is Navy’s 6th in a row over Army, the first time in the 108-year old series that one team has been able to string that many victories together. That Navy won by 35 is no surprise, given the recent history of the rivalry. How they won, though, was.
Do you remember the 2005 Army-Navy Game? The Mids got off to a slow start in that game, too. Army actually took a 3-0 lead into the 2nd quarter, having kicked a field goal with 26 seconds left at the end of the 1st. On the next drive, though, Reggie Campbell took a pitch from Lamar Owens at midfield and blasted past the entire Army defense on the way to the end zone. The speed difference was so obvious between the two teams on that play that, despite the slow start, I knew that there was no way Army was going to win. The speed difference was amplified on the first play of the 4th quarter, as Adam Ballard– a fullback, remember– outran Army’s defensive backs on a 67-yard touchdown run of his own. On Saturday, as I watched Zerbin Singleton pull away from the Army secondary on his 38-yard touchdown run, I had the same feeling that I did in 2005. It’s an article of faith for Army fans that their players are just like Navy’s, and that if they ran the option they’d be just as good. It isn’t true. Navy is better, and it isn’t just the offense. Winning the game by 35 points, even when the offense had its least productive day of the season, tells us something.
During practice last week, Buddy Green had a message for his players. Play well against Army, he said, and people will forget the rest of the season. The defense responded. Navy gave up a scant 217 yards of offense and forced two fumbles. The stat of the day was Army converting only 1 of 12 3rd-down opportunities. Of Navy’s 38 points, 24 were set up by the defense or special teams. Reggie had a 98-yard kickoff return. Shun White ran in a toss sweep for a TD after Michael Walsh forced a fumble that was recovered by Irv Spencer inside the Army 10 yard line. A blocked punt in the 4th quarter gave Navy the ball inside the Army 10 again, and set up Jarod Bryant’s 1-yard TD plunge. And Joey Bullen kicked a career-long 51-yard field goal to end the first half, which was set up by a brilliant punt return, again by Reggie Campbell. It was a tremendous performance from the defense and special teams. It feels really good to be able to say that, too, after the criticism (however justified) that those units have received all year.
I’m trying to decide where this defensive performance ranks among others during Buddy Green’s tenure as defensive coordinator. I really think it’s #1. There have been other memorable games for the defense; shutting out Tulsa in 2004, the big plays in the Emerald Bowl, the Stanford & Temple games last year, putting the clamps on Rice a couple of times… But I think this one was better. First, it’s the biggest game of the year. Yes, Army’s offense isn’t good, but it’s still the Army-Navy Game. This is still the one that matters the most. Second, unlike most of those other games, the offense didn’t have a great day. It was the defense that carried the team. The only other game among those I listed where you can say that is the 14-13 win over Rice in 2004. But this was done on the big stage, in the most important game. That’s what sets it apart for me.
So what was it with the offense anyway? Did they just have a bad day, or has John Mumford solved the puzzle of PJ’s offense? I watched the game again yesterday trying to figure out what Army did, and I really couldn’t see anything unusual schematically. Army did do two things that really slowed the running game down. They shed blocks as well as any team we’ve faced this year. They also had their safeties overcommit to the run. I mean really commit. Jordan Murray had 16 tackles. Usually, seeing that would be an invitation for PJ to throw it over their heads. But with the weather being what it was– cold and windy– and the defense playing as well as they were, I think Coach Johnson just decided not to bother with it. PJ said after the game that the weather wasn’t very conducive to passing, and Kaipo only had 5 attempts on the day. Only one of those attempts was a real home run swing. As lights-out as the defense was, I think PJ figured the only way that Army would get into the game was if they generated some turnovers. Throwing the ball on a windy day like that would have made turnovers a real possibility, so he just played things close to the vest. The good news is that Navy walked out of there with a dominating win, and didn’t have to put anything special on film to do it.
A disturbing backstory to the game was the conduct of some Army players on the field. You might have read this article from Bill Wagner where Adam Ballard talks about guys twisting his legs at the bottom of the pile. Other than seeing Adam get up angrily after a few tackles, that was hard to see on TV. What wasn’t hard to see, though, was Jeremy Trimble’s hit on Ram Vela after Army’s first play from scrimmage. Do you remember when Virginia tackle Brad Butler took a shot at Boston College DE Mathias Kiwanuka a couple of years ago? It looked like that; a shot at Vela’s knees from behind & to the side, and after the play was over. I have never wished to have my computer fixed as much as I do right now, just so I could capture the video and show it to you. If you recorded the game, look at the bottom of the screen on Army’s first play. It might be the dirtiest play in the history of the Army-Navy Game. Not that it’s a series known for dirty plays or anything, but that just makes it more shameful. Seriously, watch the tape. This isn’t hyperbole.
But no amount of shadiness was going to put Army over the top on Saturday. In the end, Navy sang their alma mater last, conducted by a seemingly reluctant Reggie Campbell. Hearing the Brigade chant his name, and more or less force him to the conductor’s podium, is a memory that I will never forget from this game. To see the Brigade connect with a player like that, and the team as a whole, is something that would have been almost unimaginable when I was at USNA. It’s a change for the better.
Birddog Game Balls
— Reggie Campbell: Duh. But really, how much are we going to miss Reggie? What a special player. He is now second only to Napoleon McCallum among Navy’s all-time leaders in all-purpose yardage. Think about that for a second.
— Michael Walsh: No player has improved more over the course of the season than Michael Walsh. He had yet another solid game against Army, with 8 tackles (2 for a loss) and a forced fumble that would set up a touchdown. Walsh has become Navy’s best defensive lineman. He’s only a junior, too.
— Joey Bullen: Death. Taxes. Huge Joey Bullen field goals in big games. It’s science.