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Navy sings second, stymying Army for 17-13 victory

The Commander-In-Chief’s Trophy is split for the first time since 1993.

NCAA Football: Army at Navy Danny Wild-USA TODAY Sports

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Navy lined up for a punt to begin the fourth quarter. It seemed like another empty drive for the Midshipmen, but it didn’t matter. They led 14-13 over rival Army. They had control of the game.

Still, Army thought it was about to get the ball back. The Black Knights thought they’d have a chance to retake the lead. And boy, were those thoughts wrong.

Freshman long snapper Ethan Nguyen made an executive decision, one where all hell could’ve broken loose if the slightest mistake was made.

Nguyen snapped the ball to linebacker and senior captain Diego Fagot — and to Fagot’s surprise. Fagot was alert though. He caught the snap just over his left shoulder, and then capitalized, rushing four yards to the left while stiff-arming and hurdling Army defenders for the first down. That extended what would nearly be a nine-minute long drive. It ended with a Navy field goal — a 43-yarder from Bijan Nichols — and extended the Mids’ lead to four points.

The defensive player who has never carried the ball, even in high school, had his signature senior moment — in the most important contest of his final collegiate campaign — making an already stellar season even more special.

“We did have a fake in the game-plan. We were talking about it already,” Fagot said. “I guess (Nguyen) assumed that I called the fake, and he just snapped it to me, and it was a reaction play, honestly.”

That play proved to be the most crucial in Navy’s 17-13 win over Army on Saturday at MetLife Stadium. It kept Army’s offense off the field and increased Navy’s lead. It led to the Midshipmen singing second, and it spoiled the Black Knights’ hopes of capturing another Commander-In-Chief’s Trophy.

Fagot’s play was critical on defense too. He finished with a team-high nine tackles.

The first half was all Army, and it began from the opening drive. Quarterback Christian Anderson ran to the left completely untouched for a 56-yard touchdown on the fourth play of the game.

Army’s offense seemed to be riding high, priding themselves on their mantra, “the last of the hard.” Their defense didn’t quite match that though, as Navy converted twice on fourth downs, and 6-of-15 on third downs. Navy had possession for nearly 35 minutes, and piled up 196 rushing yards.

Navy opened with an 11-play, 83-yard drive in the first quarter, capped off by an eight-yard rushing touchdown by Tai Lavatai. You can give Lavatai the touchdown on the play, but it was really all James Harris II. Lavatai ran up the middle for a six-yard gain, but the extra two yards were all from Harris pushing and pulling his quarterback into the end-zone.

“I think it shows how everyone here trusts the other person,” Lavatai said. “Every person on that team has each other’s back and I think that shows tremendously here.”

Army would close the first quarter with a field goal, taking a 10-7 lead. They would lead at the half too, 13-7.

But the Midshipmen came out of halftime hungry, and it showed with its rush defense.

“They beat blocks, they just destroyed blocks,” Army’s Jeff Monken said. “We tried different things and none of them worked. We just got outplayed.”

Army came into the weekend ranked second in the country in rushing offense, racking up more than 300 yards per-game on the ground. They finished the second half with only 41 yards rushing and 124 on the afternoon. It was the Black Knights’ second lowest rushing total of the season, and Army’s 232 yards of total offense was its lowest of the year.

“They [Army] like to say that they are ‘the last of the hard.’ Quite frankly, we took that to heart,” Fagot said. “We aren’t going to lay down.”

Navy’s offense did not lay down either, as the Mids came out on the first drive with two big chunk plays from Maquel Haywood and Chance Warren. This resulted in another rushing touchdown for Lavatai, and Navy’s first lead of the day. Lavatai paced the Navy offense with 144 total yards on 20 rushes and four pass completions. Not once did he turn the ball over.

Warren’s run was especially key on that drive. It was a double-reverse end-around — akin to the Navy Special that the Mids ran against Army in 2019. Except this time, Warren didn’t have time to throw. He was chased out of the backfield, and then broke upfield to Army’s two-yard-line for a 26-yard pick-up

“It was an unbelievable play. He did the same thing at SMU, ran over a guy,” Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo said. “Chance has been a baller the whole time he has been here.”

Offensively, Army was shut down for the rest of the game. The Black Knights punted on their next three drives as Navy’s defense played sharply. In the second half, Anderson completed just 2-of-9 passes. JaKobi Buchanan was inches away from picking up the only large chunk play of the half for the Black Knights, but Navy senior Michael McMorris capped his great night with an ankle tackle. Had McMorris not been there, Buchanan — like he’s done so many times this season — might’ve rumbled ahead for a large pickup.

“I knew I wasn’t going to be able to tackle him high, so I went straight for his legs. I held on for dear life waiting for the rest of my teammates to come,” McMorris said.

After that play, both teams would get one more drive. Navy went three-and-out, and Army couldn’t capitalize on a seven-play drive that ended with Anderson being stuffed on fourth down.

With Navy winning, it’s the first time the Commander-In-Chief’s trophy has been split three ways since 1993. The trophy will remain at West Point since Army won last year.

“I just love my team. I told our captains and our seniors that I have been coaching 31 years, 24 years at the Naval Academy, which prides itself on being the premier leadership institution in the world,” Niumatalolo said. “And I don’t know if I have seen a better display of leadership than I saw from our seniors.

Navy ends its season with a 4-8 record — but few will remember those eight losses, because the Mids beat Army for the 62nd time.

For Army, its season isn’t quite over. They’ll aim to rebound from this loss on Dec. 22 against Missouri in the Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl.