Senior Army quarterback Trent Steelman sat heartbroken on the bench after the Black Knights fumbled with a little more than a minute to go, giving away their last chance to beat Navy. He sobbed on the bench and kept sobbing through the traditional singing of the alma maters, as teammates and even Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo tried to console him.
We all got to see Steelman's raw realization he would never beat Navy, and it was also apparent he understood how close Army came to breaking its long losing streak to its rival.
This Army team was supposed to have a chance breaking the streak, with Steelman and a good supporting cast. The Black Knights didn't play that well during the season, going 2-9 before Saturday, but did play well against Navy. They had lost 10 in a row to Navy, the longest streak in the rivalry's history, and most of those games weren't close. But here the Black Knights were, leading in the fourth quarter. Later, they were driving in the final minutes with a chance to win.
Most of Army's previous 10 losses in a row to Navy were blowouts. This one was just cruel.
Army had a first down at Navy's 14-yard line in the final two minutes, trailing 17-13. The Black Knights ran an option play they've run countless times in games and practices. One of the keys to that play is the "mesh," when the quarterback puts the ball in the fullback's gut, and either lets him have it or takes it back, based on what the defense does. The quarterback and fullback do this probably thousands of times through their careers. It becomes second nature. This time, Steelman and fullback Larry Dixon fumbled on the mesh. Navy recovered with just 1:04 left. Game over. For Steelman and the Army seniors, their football careers were over as well. They'll go serve our country in a few months after graduation.
That was Steelman's last chance to beat Navy. It might have been Army's last realistic shot to beat Navy for a while.
Navy has a freshman quarterback, Keenan Reynolds. He took over the quarterback job in a game against Air Force and Navy's offense took off. He was tremendous against Army, especially during a game-winning drive in the fourth quarter. He's only going to get better. Army has had a tough time recruiting the same type of players as Navy through the past decade. This Army senior class, led by Steelman, was supposed to be pretty good, however. And it never got that elusive win against Navy.
Army played better than Navy for most of the first half. Near the end of the half, the Black Knights put together an efficient drive in the final minute to set up a career-long field goal attempt by Eric Osteen. The kick started to hook left, then banged off the upright and went through for a field goal and a 10-10 tie at halftime. With that, it looked like it might be Army's day.
Army had chances to open up a big lead in the second half. Second and 1 near the goal line turned into a short field-goal attempt. A long drive during the fourth quarter stalled inside Navy's 25-yard line, and Osteen missed a field goal wide left with 6:57 to play.
After Osteen's miss, Navy leaned on Reynolds, suddenly dropping back to pass on almost every play. Reynolds completed a 10-yard pass on third and 8. When it looked like he would get sacked, setting up third and long, he eluded two Army's defenders and ran outside for 11 yards. Then Reynolds threw 49 yards to Brandon Turner - Navy passed for only 108.6 yards per game before Saturday - and then Reynolds ran 8 yards for the go-ahead touchdown with 4:41 left.
Steelman led a gutsy drive deep into Navy territory, giving Army a chance to win. That fell apart with the first-down fumble.
As CBS kept showing Steelman weeping all the way until he disappeared into the tunnel to the locker room, you had to feel awful for him. You had to feel pretty terrible for Army too. This might have been its last chance for a while to break the streak.
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