The Washington Post Sunday
On Sept. 11, football is just part of the story at Navy-Air Force
All service academy football games are emotional. The traditions that are always a part of them — from the march-ons to the flyovers to the players standing at attention at game’s end for each other’s alma mater — make clear the genuine respect between the opponents, even if they can’t stand the thought of losing to one another.
Not surprisingly, all of that went to another level Saturday when Air Force and Navy met at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium on the 20th anniversary of 9/11. Like that Tuesday 20 years ago, the day was spectacular: sunny, cool and breezy. For everyone old enough to remember — none of whom played in the game — the
memories were, to put it mildly, sobering.
“It was awesome for us to play in this game on this day,” Navy Coach Ken Niumatalolo said quietly after his team’s 23-3 loss in front of 36,997 fans. “We’re very divided in this country right now. So it was nice for one day at least to see people put aside politics and for all of us to just be Americans. We were all affected by that day, and it’s something we should all remember.”
Fortunately, the pregame tributes weren’t over-the-top — those who understand tragedy don’t feel the need to shout about it. While CBS’s talking heads prattled on during their pregame show about how 9/11 affected them, those involved in the game stuck to basics: a reminder of the Navy and Air Force graduates who died that day, a tribute to first responders and a moment of silence before the national anthem for all of those who died. The giant American flag at halfmast hanging at the stadium’s north end was impossible to miss.
It was all done with dignity and, thankfully, without any speeches. But the real choke-up moment came during one of the most underrated of service academy traditions, the “prisoner exchange.”
Each fall, several juniors from the service academies spend a semester at one of the other academies. Just before the meeting of the football teams, the transfers are allowed to join their classmates, crossing the field to be with, in this case, their fellow mids or cadets.
They stand at attention facing one another, change sides of the field and then sprint into the stands. They always wear a message of some kind on the back of their uniforms. Usually it’s banal stuff such as “Sink the Mids” or “Ground the Zoomies.” Not Saturday. The message on the backs of the Mids’ uniforms said simply: “9112001.” The Air Force uniforms said: “Never Forget.” Simple yet eloquent. And then the teams played football, which didn’t turn out well for Navy. Air Force scored the game’s last 23 points. Navy’s defense didn’t play poorly for most of the day, but the offense was, in a word, awful. Navy gained 68 yards total, and that was with some consolation yardage in the fourth quarter. The Mids picked up six first downs — one in the first three quarters. They averaged 1.1 yards per rush.
“We’re a running team, and we had 36 yards,” Niumatalolo said. “Not close to good enough.”
Air Force wasn’t a whole lot better, but everything is relative. It managed 176 yards on the ground — 3.0 yards per carry — and had 14 first downs. Not that impressive, but compared with Navy, the Falcons were Oregon under Chip Kelly.
“Our defense was great,” Air Force Coach Troy Calhoun said. “We just hung in there, hung in there and finally got going just enough [on] offense. The special teams plays, though, were huge.”
The Falcons led 7-3 at halftime, both scores set up by short punts followed by a short burst of offense. Navy quarterback Xavier Arline picked up 26 yards on a quarterback counter play — after a 12-yard Air Force punt — and was only kept out of the end zone by a shoestring tackle by TD Blackmon on the 10-yard line. Navy went nowhere from there, and Bijan Nichols came in to kick a 23-yard field goal with 10:36 left in the half.
At that moment, the 3-0 lead looked as if it might be insurmountable.
It wasn’t. Air Force later took over at the Navy 43 after a 19-yard punt and actually converted three third downs — including a 15yard run by Micah Davis on the first successful pitch play run by either team. Three plays later, fullback Brad Roberts barreled in from the three and the insurmountable lead had become a 7-3 deficit.
As it turned out, that lead was insurmountable. Navy never came anywhere close to the Air Force goal line until late in the fourth quarter with the game already decided.
“Last week, we moved the ball and couldn’t score,” Navy offensive co-captain Chance Warren said. “This week, we couldn’t move the ball at all; it was as if we were playing in quicksand.”
It was that offensive futility that led to Niumatalolo going allout on a punt block late in the third quarter with the score still 7-3. Air Force’s Charles Bein had to field the snap on a hop, and Daniel Jones broke through and dived at the ball. He missed, but he got Bein’s legs, leading to a roughing the kicker penalty and an automatic first down on a fourth-and-22 play.
“I just thought we had to try something,” Niumatalolo said. “We weren’t moving the ball at all, so we went all-out for the block.”
Three plays later, Air Force quarterback Haaziq Daniels fooled the Navy defense completely on what looked like a fullback dive play and raced 28 yards untouched to the end zone. It was 14-3, and the game, for all intents and purposes, was over. A terrible snap out of the end zone on Navy’s next series made it 16-3, and the best drive of the day by either team — 58 yards — led to Roberts scoring again to make it 23-3. It was all over but the singing. Which they did when the clock mercifully ran out as the sun began to set. The Falcons stood at rigid attention during the playing of the Navy alma mater, then celebrated wildly after their song was over.
“The Air Force defense was good,” Arline said. “But there are no excuses. We didn’t execute. We have to get better.”
Navy’s offense, dating back to the last three games of 2020, has been atrocious. It has scored 23 points in its last five games — 10 in the first two games of this season.
“Back to the drawing board,” Warren said with a sigh.
Navy will have a bye week to work on that drawing board before traveling to Houston. The schedule offers no breathers.
For everyone present, this was an emotional day, one to remember. For the Mids, though, the memories will be bittersweet.