BALTIMORE -- Army quarterback Ahmad Bradshaw took the snap, touched his knee to the M&T Bank Stadium turf, handed the ball to center judge Tom McCreesh, then turned toward the Corps of Cadets and delivered a victorious uppercut into the frigid evening Saturday. The Black Knights beat No. 25 Navy 21-17, snapping a 14-game losing streak to their mates in arms and biggest rivals.
The entire Army team rushed the field, nearly trampling McCreesh. The corps leaped over the wall and engulfed their classmates. Fifteen years -- and nine days, to be exact – between victories is an eternity when you play only once a year.
“Surreal,” Army wide receiver Edgar Poe, one of six senior starters. “It still doesn’t even feel like it’s real.”
How could it? In the time since Army won 26-17 on Dec. 1, 2001, Army has beaten Navy 181 times in 23 other sports. The Black Knights won 10 straight in baseball. They enjoyed two winning streaks of eight matches in volleyball. They won seven straight in rifle, a sport you would think Army would win, just as the Navy women and men last week extended their winning streaks in swimming to 28 and 26 meets, respectively.
But in football, there has been nothing -- until Saturday.
“We heard for a long time at West Point about the streak,” Army third-year head coach Jeff Monken said. “It feels good to be part of the team that kind of put that to an end. Interestingly enough, I was in the other locker room when the streak started, so I’m really proud to be on this team to see the streak come to an end.”
The last Army victory occurred fewer than 12 weeks after 9/11. Monken was a Navy assistant with current Midshipmen head coach Ken Niumatalolo. Miami won the national championship that season. Eli Manning started his first game. Not for the Giants -- for Ole Miss. The site of the game, Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia, has been gone for 13 years.
Everything pointed to this being Army’s year. The Black Knights had three weeks to rest up and re-energize. Navy not only played the past two weeks but lost starting quarterback Will Worth, starting slotback Toneo Gulley, and wide receiver Tyler Carmona for the season in the 34-10 loss to Temple a week ago in the American Athletic Conference championship game.
Navy sophomore quarterback Zach Abey made his first start and played like it. He settled down a little bit in the second half and even led the Midshipmen to a 17-14 fourth-quarter lead. But Abey couldn’t sustain a drive. Navy made only eight first downs and had only one possession of more than six plays. Only the Black Knights’ four turnovers kept the Midshipmen close.
Army, on the other hand, did what Navy usually does. Army controlled the line of scrimmage and controlled the ball for 40 minutes, 19 seconds. The Black Knights ran for 318 yards. Fullback Andy Davidson ran the ball a career-high 28 times for 87 yards and two touchdowns, which made up for his two fumbles.
“I always watched this game as a kid. I always cheered for Army, the underdog,” said Davidson, a sophomore from Allentown, Pennsylvania. “When Trent Steelman and the guys lost it [in 2012], I was heartbroken. I was cheering for them all the way. That started my love for Army football, that game.”
Navy won that game 17-13 when an exchange between Steelman, the quarterback, and running back Larry Dixon went awry at the Navy 14 with 1:04 to play. That was the only loss in the streak in which Army held a lead in the fourth quarter.
The Black Knights started the fourth quarter Saturday with a lead and held it for exactly 2:18. On a basic option play, Abey cut inside of three defenders, ran through three tackles and went 41 yards to put Navy ahead 17-14.
“That’s a time where you could look around and maybe some teams got that look in their eye of doubt, and concern,” Monken said. “I think our guys just knuckled down and were determined that they were going to win.”
But this year would be different. The Black Knights were playing for themselves, for the corps, for the troops around the globe and for the late Brandon Jackson, their teammate who died in an automobile accident on Sept. 11.
“I know we honored Brandon with our play,” senior linebacker Andrew King said. “His mother was here and we definitely showed out for his family.”
Army responded with a 12-play, 80-yard drive that chewed 6:42 off the clock. They converted two third downs, not to mention a fourth-and-1 at the Navy 11. On the play after Davidson bulled for two yards, Bradshaw kept his legs churning and gained the nine yards for the winning touchdown.
“Win First, Sing Second,” a sign in the corps said. At game’s end, the teams gather in front of each student body as it sings their alma mater. For the first time in 15 years, Army sang second.
Steps inside the tunnel leading to the locker room, U.S. Military Academy Superintendent Lt. Gen. Robert Caslen, stood, greeting players and coaches as they squeezed through the flash mob on the field.
“All of our soldiers, all over the world, are celebrating right now,” the superintendent said. “They know what it’s like to be on the other end of this. Trust me, they are very grateful.”
A few paces behind Gen. Caslen, Army athletic director Boo Corrigan stood in his overcoat, the joy etched in his face.
“You’re just so happy for the kids on the team,” Corrigan said. “You’re just so happy for the Corps of Cadets, doing everything they can to make it happen. It’s a whole academy thing. It’s not just one part of it.”
To Corrigan’s left, junior offensive tackle Brett Toth planted himself in the middle of the tunnel and hugged every teammate and coach who came through.
Monken stood outside the locker room, waiting in vain for his coaches and players stuck on the field. Niumatalolo walked toward him and the two old friends embraced. A rivalry isn’t a rivalry when only one team is winning.