PHILADELPHIA -- It's a good thing the Army-Navy game does not depend on competitiveness for its appeal. Navy won again Saturday, 17-3, which makes eight in a row, and there is excitement afoot because the Black Knights led at halftime.
"It kind of takes away from games when you beat them 34-0 and 38-3," said Navy senior left guard Osei Asante, reciting the scores of the past two seasons' games. Asante will graduate, like the four classes before him, with an unbeaten record against Army.
But in this rivalry, football is merely the means to a good and honorable end. Army and Navy want to crush each other on the football field in the way that brothers compete. There's no more passionate rivalry in the sport because, when the players graduate, they are on the same team.
"It's more than football," Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo said. "This isn't the biggest rivalry in college football. It is the biggest rivalry in sports. If not for these guys doing what they do, you wouldn't have football. America understands that, because of these young men, they allow us to have freedoms in this great country."
If that sounds old-fashioned, well, old-fashioned is in. There is a lot about this rivalry that seems lifted straight out of the 1950s. The respective student bodies marched into Lincoln Financial Field as a unit, same as ever.
Army entered first, elegant in their dress grays with the capes buttoned at the neck and flowing over the shoulders of their overcoats. The Corps shaved down its 32 companies so that each one marched with 96 cadets in 12 rows of eight. The cadets strode with the unison of mechanical pistons, mostly men in the front, gradually giving way to mostly women in the back.
That's not discrimination. The Corps organizes its rows by height.
After the Corps departed, in came the Brigade, resplendent in their service dress blues, eight brass double-breasted buttons gleaming on their overcoats, white scarves tucked in at the neck. The midshipmen, marching in 15 rows of eight, didn't show quite the crisp ability of the cadets. There's only so much marching necessary on a ship.
The student bodies on both campuses live for this week. Rules, said "Firstie" (First Classman, or senior) Stu White of Atlanta, are overlooked during Beat Navy week.
"Everything's good about it," White said. "It's the end of the year. They let us wear ACUs to class."
"Army Combat Uniforms. Fatigues," White said.
Here's another go-ask-your-grandparents tradition: pranks, or as they are called on the two campuses, "spirit missions." Midshipmen found "Go Army" posters waxed onto the floor of a cafeteria at Annapolis. Plebes (freshmen) "kidnapped" Navy students who are studying at West Point this fall and brought them to the clock tower at the central area of campus. Windows from the four surrounding barracks opened and verbal abuse rained down upon the midshipmen.
About 25 minutes before the game, the commanders of each student body marched to midfield for the "prisoner exchange." Navy swapped 11 West Point cadets studying in Annapolis for 11 midshipmen studying at Army. When the Navy students lined up, letters applied to the backs of their dress blue overcoats spelled out "EIGHT YEARS."
And, of course, after the game, both teams assemble in front of first, the losing student body, to sing that alma mater, and then in front of the winning student body to do the same. Army, all too accustomed to going first, walked solemnly to face its brethren in the stands. As soon as the alma mater ended, the Navy players, whooping and hollering, sprinted over to their giddy fellow students.
It is quite a show, and for the first time ever, the academies played on the second Saturday in December.
"We're hoping it will reintroduce the game to the American public," Army senior associate athletic director Bob Beretta said before the game.
The game moved from Thanksgiving weekend to the first weekend in December a quarter-century ago. But the proliferation of conference championship games that began in the mid-1990s made the Army-Navy game just another game in the mix.
It is anything but. Participate in this rivalry, and it stays with you. New York Jets linebackers coach Bob Sutton, the head coach at Army from 1991-99, watched Saturday from Tampa, Fla.
"I love this game," Sutton said. "Those two teams are so similar in who they really are, the guys inside their uniforms. I can still remember what it felt like in the tunnel before the game. It was a thrill to get ready for it."
Navy won with a strong defense. Army made three first downs in the first quarter and didn't get another one until the fourth. Navy dominated the third quarter, scoring 10 points while allowing Army only five snaps.
Defensive coordinator Buddy Green, a 30-year coaching veteran who has been at Annapolis for eight years, gets one more game with these Midshipmen.
"I've been in a lot of big games across this country, a lot of rivalries," said Green, whose unit last allowed a touchdown to Army in the fourth quarter of 2006. "Our guys understand that the entire Marine Corps and the entire Navy are watching them. They want it so bad for the ones that have come before them, the ones who have fallen and aren't here anymore. They know what this game means. There's no other feeling like it anywhere I've been. There's nothing bigger than this one."
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and hosts the ESPNU College Football podcast. Send your questions and comments to Ivan at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN3.com.