1949: Navy 21, Tulane 21
Among the members of the American Athletic Conference, no team has faced Navy more than the Tulane Green Wave. The two have squared off against each other 19 times dating back to 1949. Looking back on this list I’ve put together, Tulane is probably underrepresented. It wouldn’t be too difficult to come up with a pretty decent list made up of Navy-Tulane games alone.
Why don’t we give it a try?
Quick! Who was the last Navy quarterback to throw for 300 yards? Bill Byrne? Jim Kubiak? John Cartwright? No! It’s Brian Broadwater, who threw for 302 against Tulane in 2000. He ran for another 115, and that combined output set a school record for single-game total offense. Navy’s 724 yards as a team were another school record, and it also set the record for most yards ever gained in the Superdome by any team on any level. Somehow, Navy still managed to lose, 50-38.
Quick! Who has the longest reception in Navy history? Rob Taylor? Phil McConkey? Damon Dixon? No! It’s Matt Scornavacchi, who took a Chris McCoy pass 87 yards in Navy’s 35-7 senior day blowout of Tulane in 1995. It was one of four touchdowns on the day for McCoy (2 rushing, 2 passing), who also ran for 108 yards after replacing starter Ben Fay in the second quarter. That put him at 725 rushing yards for the year, which broke the previous record for rushing yards in a season by a Navy quarterback set by Alton Grizzard in 1989. Navy’s defense had a fine game of its own, holding Shaun King to only 93 passing yards.
One year later, Navy defeated Tulane 35-21 behind McCoy’s 214 yards on a school-record 44 carries. McCoy became the first Navy quarterback to top the 1,000-yard mark for rushing in a season that day, while the team hit a few milestones of its own. It was the Mids’ seventh victory of the season (their most since 1981), making them bowl eligible. It also completed an undefeated season at home, which was another accomplishment not achieved by Navy since 1981. All the excitement inspired the Brigade of Midshipmen to tear down the goalposts at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium after the game (officially sanctioned, of course).
Navy defeated the Green Wave 49-21 in 2005. It was one of those games where every part of the triple option was clicking. Lamar Owens scored three touchdowns, Matt Hall rumbled for 109 rushing yards and a score, and Reggie Campbell and Marco Nelson combined for 142 total yards and two more touchdowns. The most memorable part about that game, though, wasn’t the game itself, but what preceded it. Hurricane Katrina had shut down the Tulane campus for the entire fall semester, and the school’s various athletics teams became nomads. The football team took classes and practiced at Louisiana Tech that season, and played all 11 games in 11 different stadiums. When Tulane came to Annapolis, the Naval Academy Athletic Association increased Tulane’s game guarantee by $50,000 to cover the team’s travel costs, and arranged for free meals. The Naval Academy Foundation provided Tulane’s players with gift bags, and the school worked with a Baltimore hotel to provide free rooms. It was a nice gesture to a team playing through extraordinary circumstances.
The most glaring omission from my list, and in retrospect a game that I should have included, was the 1958 contest. Navy came into the game ranked #6 in the country and was a heavy favorite over the struggling Green Wave, who started the season 0-4. Army was on top of the polls that week, and anticipation was building for a possible national title matchup in the Army-Navy game. Those hopes were sunk as Tulane quarterback Richie Petitbon led his team to a stunning 14-6 upset in front of 33,000 fans in the Oyster Bowl. Both teams came into the game known for their passing offenses, but Tulane caught Navy off guard by running for 214 yards. Meanwhile, while Navy connected on a few big plays (including a 25-yard TD pass from Joe Tranchini to Joe Bellino), they also threw two interceptions that killed whatever momentum they could muster.
That’s five notewothy games that I could have included, although none of them would have unseated the game that tops the list: their first matchup, in 1949.
Once upon a time, Tulane was the very definition of a football powerhouse. A founding member of the Southeastern Conference, their three SEC titles are still more than those of current members Kentucky, Vanderbilt, Arkansas, Mississippi State, and South Carolina. (Missouri and Texas A&M too, obviously, but it doesn’t seem right to include them). The Greenies (as they were popularly known) played in two Sugar Bowls and the Rose Bowl between 1932 and 1940. World War II led to some lean years (as it did at many schools), but the team rebounded nicely after the war ended. In 1948, Tulane went 9-1, led the SEC in attendance, and ended the season ranked #13 in the AP poll. They opened the 1949 season ranked #4 and was The Sporting News’ pick to win the national championship.
Navy was on the opposite trajectory. Like most service schools, the Naval Academy saw an influx of talent during World War II as players were allowed to transfer in and play right away. Between 1941 and 1945, the Midshipmen finished in the top 10 four times and twice played Army for the national championship. After the war, Navy’s fall was immediate. Several Navy stars, such as Skip Minisi and Clyde Scott, were allowed to return to play for their previous schools. Unlike Army, most of Navy’s other transfer players had used up their eligibility. Replacing those players was difficult. The educational benefits in the 1944 G.I. Bill meant that returning servicemen could go to school just about anywhere; a free Naval Academy education didn’t have the same appeal. Navy won only two games in the three years from 1946-1948.
Navy’s schedule in 1949 didn’t help matters. They opened the season in Los Angeles against USC. After returning home to take on strong Princeton and Duke teams, they hit the road again, this time to Wisconsin. That was followed by trip to Philadelphia for a game against #14 Penn. A week before heading to New Orleans to face Tulane, the Midshipmen were walloped by top-ranked Notre Dame. With that murderer’s row, Navy’s 2-4 record after 6 games was actually seen as a bit of an achievement considering that the team was winless a year earlier. It was progress, perhaps, but still a far cry from Tulane.
The Green Wave started their season with three wins by a combined score of 86-14. Two of those wins (Alabama and Georgia Tech) were conference victories. Tulane took that 3-0 record and a #4 ranking to South Bend for a highly anticipated showdown with #1 Notre Dame. Grantland Rice was in attendance. The Associated Press called it “the top game of the week, maybe of the year,” and picked Tulane in an upset. They couldn’t have been more wrong.
The game was a disaster for Tulane. By the end of the first quarter, the Irish already had a 27-0 lead, thanks in part to an 81-yard run by Larry Coutre through several missed tackles. In the end, the Irish prevailed in a 46-7 rout that Life magazine described as “pure murder:”
Last Saturday afternoon in South Bend, Ind., the Notre Dame football team– rated No. 1 in the nation– played Tulane, then rated No. 4. Since the No. 2 and 3 teams, Army and Oklahoma, would not meet the Irish, it looked like a possible national championship, and the press treated it accordingly. This was an error. Thirteen minutes after the opening gun, Tulane was quivering like a troop of Boy Scouts on the Normandy beachhead and the score was 27-0 for the Fighting Irish.
Sterling Slappey, writing for the AP, likened the SEC’s struggles against Northern teams that season to the Civil War. This game was his Gettysburg:
Of course the Gettysburg of Southern football this year was Tulane’s 46-7 loss to Notre Dame. That affair is spoken of in quiet, subdued voices in Dixie nowadays. Like Robert E. Lee, Tulane was the savior of the South who invaded and lost.
Tulane was considered a lock for the Sugar Bowl before the trip to South Bend, but after so much national attention was paid to such a brutal defeat, the game’s organizers soured on inviting the Green Wave. The team still held out hope for a different bowl game, though, and figured that if they could string together enough blowout victories of their own, they would still be appealing to the Gator, Cotton, or Orange Bowls.
Following the loss to the Irish, Tulane had a three-game homestand with which to make their point. They opened with a 14-6 defeat of Auburn, then followed it up with a 54-6 dismantling of hapless Mississippi State. Next on the schedule was the Midshipmen and their 2-4 record. Coming off of their own 40-0 steamrolling at the hands of Notre Dame, Navy was a 14-point underdog. Tulane was counting on winning by a lot more than that.
The game was a contrast of styles. Tulane, with fullback Eddie Price powering his way through a strong and experienced line, liked to keep the ball on the ground. In contrast, Navy was a passing team, with quarterback Bob Zastrow throwing to fellow sophomore Vic Vine. Navy received an additional boost from the return of halfback Bill Powers, who had been struggling with an ankle injury. Powers wasted no time in announcing his return, catching a 29-yard pass from Zastrow on the game’s first possession. The play helped Navy drive 88 yards and take an early 7-0 lead after a 5-yard touchdown pass from Zastrow to Vine. Right away, the 70,000 in attendance– a record for a regular season game in the South– knew that they were in for a better game than expected.
Tulane would answer. The Green Wave ran for 318 yards that day, and gained 52 of them on one run by Powers, the key play in a drive that put the ball on Navy’s one-yard line as time expired in the first quarter. Price finished the job on the first play of the second quarter, and the game was tied. It wasn’t enough to discourage the Mids, though. With 18 seconds left in the half, Zastrow and Vine would connect for two more passes for 57 yards and a score, giving Navy an improbable 14-7 halftime lead.
The home team was able to assert themselves more in the second half, as the Navy defense had no answer for Price. The determined fullback was virtually untouched on two more long touchdown runs– one of 68 yards in the third quarter and another of 25 yards early in the fourth– to give Tulane a 21-14 lead. The Mids, however, found a second wind. Starting from their own 38, Zastrow once again found Bill Powers, who turned a short pass into a long one, taking the ball all the way to the Tulane 28. After two more passes moved Navy to the 5-yard line, halfback Duff Arnold took a handoff around the right end and punched the ball into the end zone. The game was tied at 21 with a little more than two minutes left to play. The Navy defense managed to get the ball back and give the offense one last shot, and Navy made their way to the Tulane 16 with 8 seconds left to play. Roger Drew ran onto the field to attempt a game-winning field goal, but time expired before the Mids could snap the ball.
The tie with Navy might as well have been a loss as far as Tulane was concerned. Navy was a team that had won only 3 times in its previous 32 tries. Tulane’s inability to do what so many others had done was a fatal blow to their bowl hopes. The Green Wave would still win the SEC title that year, but they were passed over by both the Sugar and Orange Bowls in favor of conference-mates LSU and Kentucky, respectively.
For Navy, the effort didn’t exactly lead to bigger and better things for the program; it would be another three years before the team would post a winning record. The result was, however, a point of pride for the Brigade. So much so, in fact, that today’s midshipmen still sing about the game without even realizing it.
Navy played one of the toughest schedules in the country in 1949. Army, other than their win over Michigan, did not. At the Army-Navy Game that year, the Brigade serenaded the Corps of Cadets with their own fight song, but with a new set of lyrics designed to convey that message:
We don’t play Notre Dame
We don’t play Tulane
But we play Davidson
For that’s the fearless Army way
The song has been passed down through generations of midshipmen, with Davidson being replaced with whatever cupcake Army has on their schedule in a given year. Including Notre Dame to represent Navy’s schedule is an easy choice, but Tulane is a little less obvious. Little do those mids know that their mini-tradition dates back to 1949, when the Brigade celebrated their upstart team going toe-to-toe with the SEC champions.