The last decade of college football was defined by conference realignment. The ACC lured Miami and Virginia Tech away from the Big East in 2004 in the first moves that would eventually change the face of college athletics as we knew it. BCS conferences added schools that they hoped would drive up the value of television contracts coming up for renegotiation. Conferences had to attract more viewers if they wanted to generate more money from bidding networks.
For some, that meant expanding into areas beyond their traditional regions. For others, it meant adding whoever they could just to survive. The result in both cases has been a lot of seemingly bizarre partnerships. Rutgers shares the same conference home as Nebraska. West Virginia vs. Texas Tech is now an annual contest. The Catholics are going in halvsies with the Convicts. It’s a lot to get used to.
Fortunately, that’s not the case for the Naval Academy. While some American Athletic Conference members will be making their first appearances on a Navy schedule, others have been playing the Mids for years. Among FBS conferences, only ACC and Big Ten members have played more games against Navy than the schools in the American. The Mids have faced their new conference-mates 62 times, beginning in 1930 with SMU’s trip to Baltimore. That’s a wide spectrum of Navy history, and it includes some significant moments. Here’s a look back at the 10 that I think are the most noteworthy.
#10 2002: UConn 38, Navy 0
2006: Navy 41, UConn 17
Right off the bat I get wishy-washy by counting two games as one entry on the list. In my defense, though, it’s the combination of the two that makes the story.
The 2002 UConn game is memorable only because we want so much to forget it. Despite entering the contest with a 1-8 record, a spirited performance against Notre Dame the week before gave Navy fans hope that maybe the team was turning a corner. It didn’t last. The Huskies did their best to extinguish whatever optimism might have existed in Annapolis by scoring on 5 of their first 6 possessions– two of them set up by Navy turnovers– to take a 31-0 lead into halftime.
The only thing uglier than the absolute swamp of a field that day was the Navy offense. The Mids were held to only 35 rushing yards and didn’t gain a single first down in the second half. UConn head coach Randy Edsall was obviously pleased with his defense’s performance, and explained what they did to stifle the Navy attack:
“We came in with three different schemes we were going to play with our defense. With the weather and a new fullback in there, we put our outside guys on the end to make them pitch the ball. We said we wanted them to pitch the ball to beat us.”
That’s where it gets interesting.
Edsall might have given himself a little too much credit for his team’s performance that day. According to legend, when the two shook hands after the game, Edsall told Navy coach Paul Johnson something along the lines of, “Don’t worry, I won’t share this film with anyone.” Translated into Johnsonese, that means: “I have solved your offense, but I will take pity on you and not ruin your career by sharing this information with others.” Johnson was not pleased, and was even more motivated than usual when the two met again in 2006.
UConn opened that season with a 52-7 rout of Rhode Island, who at the time was running an option offense under former Johnson assistant Tim Stowers. Edsall used the same defense in that game, so Navy’s coaches knew that they’d probably see it again too. Navy QB Brian Hampton alluded to that after the game:
“We’d seen the way they were playing defense. We played them in ’02, and we watched them over and over again. Whenever we went in motion, we watched the way they adjusted to it. Honestly, it just left the middle of the field wide open. Even in the Rhode Island game, it was the same deal.”
Hampton was referring specifically to Navy’s first play from scrimmage, a 77-yard touchdown pass to a wide-open Reggie Campbell. UConn’s strategy was still to force Navy to pitch the ball, and their secondary sold out covering the pitch man. Not only did that leave the middle of the field open for Campbell, but it left the middle of the field open for midline and counter options as well. Hampton finished the game with 182 yards on 27 carries, and Adam Ballard got loose for an 81-yard blast through the line. The Mids won the game 41-17 and piled up 605 yards of total offense, which up to that point was the most the Huskies had ever given up since moving to Division I-A. UConn later cancelled the remaining games in the series.
These two games are great because they debunk a common talking point that comes up whenever today’s Navy teams have a bad day. You can have a good game against Navy’s offense. You can beat Navy’s offense. But you do not “solve” Navy’s offense.
#9 2010: Navy 76, East Carolina 35
And sometimes, you really don’t solve Navy’s offense.
The Mids set their modern-day scoring record in this 2010 thumping of ECU. In truth, the game was a little bit closer than the score would lead you to believe; ECU amassed 567 yards of total offense and only trailed 28-21 at halftime. However, the Pirates fumbled on each of their first 3 possessions of the 3rd quarter, and Navy quickly took control. The Mids scored on 12 of their 14 possessions, including all 8 in the second half.
The game set a few records for ECU as well. Navy’s 76 points are the most that ECU has ever given up at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium, and the most they’ve given up period since 1932– their first year of football. The Mids’ 521 yards rushing are also a stadium record for an ECU opponent, and their 8 rushing TDs are the most ECU has ever surrendered either home or away.
#8 2006: Tulsa 24, Navy 23
College football adopted the overtime rule in 1996, but Navy was one of the last teams to play an overtime game. After a decade, only Navy and North Texas had yet to play beyond the 4th quarter. That streak ended against Tulsa in 2006. Brian Hampton connected with O.J. Washington in the back of the end zone in the first overtime period to bring the Mids within a point of the visiting Golden Hurricane, but the ensuing extra point was blocked, ending the game.
Other than being the first overtime game in Navy history, the game is also memorable for how terrible the officiating was. That could be said about any number of games every year, but do those games have referees announcing a two-minute warning? This one did. In fairness, I think the referee was actually referring to some kind of media timeout.
#7 1940: Navy 14, Cincinnati 0
Navy football was a powerhouse in the 1920s. Considered one of the premier teams in the East, Navy played in the 1923 Rose Bowl (a 14-14 tie with Washington) and claims a share of the 1926 national championship. The ’30s, however, weren’t nearly as glorious. Tom Hamilton orchestrated a pair of excellent seasons in 1934 and 1936, but the Midshipmen wavered between mediocre to just plain bad for most of the decade. Their fortunes began to change, however, when Maj. Emery “Swede” Larson was named head coach in 1939.
Larson was something of a legend at USNA. As a football player, he never lost to Army. He was named to the All-America team as a center in 1921, then followed that up by being named an All-American in lacrosse the next spring. Football was his passion, though, and he always found a way to be part of the game. After graduating, Larson played for three years on the All-Marine team. He coached the University of Hawaii’s line while stationed on Oahu, and then coached the Parris Island team for three years. Larson even organized a team while stationed in Shanghai with the 6th Marines. As part of the Marine detachment of the battleship USS Pennsylvania, he coached the ship’s team to two fleet championships in 1935 and 1936.
In fact, it wasn’t until he took charge of the Marine detachment at USNA that he found it difficult to make time for football. The Marines were in charge of security on the Yard, and part of those duties included directing stadium traffic on football game days. Because he was working, not only could Larson not coach the Navy team, but he couldn’t even watch. Still, Larson couldn’t keep away from the game. During that year, Larson reportedly saw a group of kids playing football in a vacant lot. He immediately volunteered to coach them, put together a schedule with local prep teams, and led that group to an 8-0 season. When Navy needed a new coach in 1939, everyone realized that the right man for the job was already on the Yard, and Larson was the pick.
One writer described Larson as being “as unorthodox as a fan dancer in red-flannel underwear.” I have no idea what that means. From the beginning, though, his coaching style was different from those of his contemporaries. As you might expect from a Marine, he stressed discipline and was very hands-on; while most coaches at the time were adding as many assistants as they could, Larson cut Navy’s staff to only himself and three others. Convention at the time was for coaches to undersell the weights of the linemen on their rosters in an effort to make their opponents overconfident. Larson would instead give accurate weights on his rosters and regularly praised his players. In his estimation, it was more important to instill confidence in his own players than worry about what the opposition was thinking.
It took a little while for his methods to pay off. 1939 wasn’t a very good year for the Midshipmen, and they took a five-game losing streak into the season finale against a heavily favored Army team. Larson had made beating Army the focus of his team from day one, though, and they clearly got the message. Behind gallant efforts from halfbacks Clifford Lenz, Dick Engle, and a hobbling Bob Leonard, Navy prevailed 10-0. It was only the Mids’ third win in the series in 16 tries.
The victory over Army brought a sense of optimism to Annapolis, that perhaps things were about to turn around. The 1940 campaign opened as most Navy seasons did, with a somewhat lackluster win over an overmatched squad from William & Mary. If things were going to be different, it wouldn’t be until the second game of the season, against the University of Cincinnati, that anyone would be able to tell.
Cincinnati wasn’t considered a major college program back then, but their football team was still respected. The Bearcats entered the game with a convincing 2-0 record, and according to one account, “boasting a fast and deceptive backfield combination and a line that is calculated to hold its own.” Dick Foster, Navy’s team captain, was held out of the game due to injury, along with two or three other regulars. Larson was being cautious since he was facing a powerhouse Princeton team the following week, but to Cincinnati it appeared that Navy was primed for an upset.
It didn’t happen. Navy won with relative ease, knocking off the visitors from Ohio 14-0 in front of nearly 20,000 fans at Thompson Stadium. What Navy lacked in offensive firepower, they made up for with a stifling defense. The performance set the tone for the entire season; it was the first of five shutouts that would be posted by the Midshipmen. The 1940 team’s defense still sits atop the Navy record books to this day. Navy once again found itself flirting with a national ranking, and by 1941 they were back into the top ten.
Larson left the team after the 1941 season. Following Navy’s third straight win over Army, he delivered what is probably the most memorable locker room speech in Navy history:
“This will be the last football game for me for a while. There’s a bigger game coming up and I’m going to be in it.”
Pearl Harbor was attacked eight days later. Larson would go on to serve in the Aleutians, Tarawa, Kwajalein, and the Marshall Islands, leaving behind him a football program that was far better than the one he found.
#6 1978: Navy 30, UConn 0
The circumstances surrounding the 1978 Navy-UConn game were very similar.
The 12 seasons from 1952-1963 were the golden age of modern Navy football. The Mids won four Lambert Trophies as the East’s top team over that span. Two Navy players won the Heisman Trophy, while a third (Tom Forrestal) finished fifth in 1957. The team finished ranked in the top 25 seven times (including four in the top 10) and played in a Sugar Bowl, an Orange Bowl, and two Cotton Bowls.
(It’s possible they would have been invited to more bowl games, but attitudes toward bowls weren’t very favorable among Navy brass. The 1957 team’s 20-7 Cotton Bowl win over Rice capped a dominating 9-1-1 campaign in which the famed “jitterbug” defense gave up only 6.45 points per game. Slade Cutter, the former football hero then serving as Navy’s athletic director, was less than overwhelmed by the experience, stating that Navy “definitely will not accept any postseason bowl games because the boys lost too much study time last year practicing for the Rice game.”)
The high water mark came in 1963. Roger Staubach won the Heisman trophy, the Mids beat Army for the fifth consecutive year, and the team finished second in the polls after playing Texas in the Cotton Bowl. It was an incredible run, but just as incredible was how quickly the program fell to pieces afterwards.
Despite playing for a national championship in 1963, Navy would manage only two winning seasons in their next 14. Wayne Hardin had clashed with USNA leadership for years, and when the injury-plagued ’64 team limped to a 3-6-1 record, their tolerance had reached its limits. His successors, Bill Elias and Rick Forzano, never came close to returning the program to its heyday. It’s doubtful that anyone could have while playing the schedules that were lined up for the Midshipmen.
Several theories exist to explain Navy’s slide into football’s abyss: the war in Vietnam, the rise of the NFL, tight admissions standards, etc. All of them are plausible. Regardless of the reasons why, the effects were devastating to the program. Outside of the Army-Navy Game, fan support all but disappeared. George Welsh managed to lead the Mids to a 7-4 record in 1975, and did so playing almost entirely on the road. Navy only played two games in Annapolis that season because they just couldn’t draw a crowd. Said Welsh:
“What we need is 5,000 more hard-core fans. If we had a better following, we could play more at home, and we’d win more. Traveling the way we do wears a team down.”
This is the baggage that the Navy program was carrying in 1978.
After Welsh’s squads went 4-7 in 1976 and 5-6 in 1977, there didn’t appear to be much reason to expect the ’78 team to do any better. The Mids did figure to be able to put a few points on the board. Bob Lesczynski was a returning starter at quarterback, and he was joined by receiver Phil McConkey, who was #3 in the nation in punt return average the year before. The defense, on the other hand, looked like a mess.
Navy’s secondary returned only one starter, safety Gregg Milo. At the other safety position was Fred Heitzel, who was the team’s third-string quarterback a year earlier. The cornerbacks were Chuck Zingler, a little-used backup, and Bob Wilson, a walk-on that used to be a running back. Up front, the defensive line featured three more walk-ons, all weighing less than 220 pounds: A. B. Miller, Mark Stephens, and Charlie Thornton. The entire defense was cobbled together from spare parts.
Navy opened the season with a 32-0 trouncing of Virginia, but that was the norm for Virginia back then; the Cavaliers were courteous enough to allow Wake Forest to end a 10-game losing streak a week earlier by a score of 14-0. Not that Connecticut was much better, having gone 1-10 themselves in 1977 as a member of the small-school Yankee Conference. Indeed, with only 6,804 in attendance in Storrs that day, this game wasn’t exactly the hottest ticket in town. Navy won the game easily, but what made it significant was how they won.
Against Virginia, Navy scored early and cruised the rest of the way. The offense stumbled a bit against the Huskies, though. Dropped passes, a missed field goal, and two fumbles by the Mids in the first half put pressure on the Navy defense early, but the patchwork unit responded brilliantly. Thornton recorded 3 sacks to lead the defense, which held UConn to only 106 total yards. The Huskies never advanced the ball past the Navy 39-yard line. When it was all said and done, the unlikeliest of units achieved the program’s first back-to-back shutouts since the celebrated ’57 team capped their regular season by blanking George Washington and Army.
It was after the dismantling of Connecticut that people started to wonder if maybe this Navy defense was something special. A nonplussed Welsh said after the game:
“I really don’t understand our defense. I honestly didn’t think we were that good: maybe we are, though.”
They were, and Welsh didn’t have to wait much longer to see for himself. A week later, Navy traveled to Boston College and won 19-8. The Mids would give up only 24 points in their first 6 games. They were ranked as high as #11 after beating #15 Pitt to cap a 7-0 start to the season. The team would eventually record 4 shutouts, beat BYU in the Holiday Bowl, and finish the season 9-3 and ranked #17 in the coaches’ poll. It was the first time Navy had been ranked since finishing #2 in 1963. The ’78 team is still regarded as one of the finest in Navy history.