PHILADELPHIA — It had been 14 years since Army and Navy played a game that wasn't the season finale for one of them. It seems like it's been just as long since the Black Knights walked off the field against their storied rivals as winners.
If Saturday was any indication, the gap may at least be closing.
Navy made it nine straight against its service academy brethren, the longest run of sustained success in the 111-year history of the series. But if not for a costly turnover late in the first half, Army would have been within a field goal with 30 minutes left to play.
That's enough to give coach Rich Ellerson and the Cadets some hope.
"I was really proud of our guys," Ellerson said after the 31-17 defeat, which matched the second-smallest margin since 2001. "They didn't let it get away from them. They battled back, they visualized success — they believed. That part of it looks great.
"Now," he said, "we need to prove we can do it against a good football team."
The Black Knights have certainly made strides in two seasons under Ellerson, becoming bowl eligible for the first time since 1996. And if it wasn't for a last-second field goal by Hawaii, a late rally by Temple and an overtime loss to Rutgers, that 6-6 record would look even better.
As it stands, Army is headed for the Armed Forces Bowl against SMU on Dec. 30, and Ellerson has been rewarded with a two-year contract extension that would keep him in West Point through 2015.
"One of the biggest things is it's going to be an underclassman that takes control of this team for our bowl game," said senior linebacker Stephen Anderson, who will finish his career having never beaten Navy. "They have to understand, how we finish this season is how they're going to start the next season. That's just the way it is."
Army had plenty of chances to make the season more memorable on Saturday. Navy quarterback Ricky Dobbs fumbled three times and threw an interception, and the Black Knights did a fair job most of the game of stuffing the nation's fifth-ranked rushing offense.
The Cadets made just as many mistakes, though, none bigger than Trent Steelman's fumble late in the second quarter. The Army quarterback was pushing near the goal line for a touchdown that would have cut their deficit to a field goal, when the ball squirted free and into the arms of Navy defensive back Wyatt Middleton. He turned and ran 98 yards the other way for a touchdown.
Suddenly, Navy was ahead 24-7 at halftime.
Rather than giving up, though — like they did during a 34-0 pasting two years ago — the Black Knights kept fighting. Steelman's 45-yard touchdown pass with 4:05 left made it interesting, and Army was threatening again a couple minutes later before running out of downs.
And ultimately out of time.
"We've been saying for 23 months to stay together and bring it back, and 'bring it back' means winning football," Ellerson said. "We didn't play well enough — we didn't coach well enough — when you're playing a really good football team.
"What we proved to ourselves is that we can play with a really good team," Ellerson added moments later. "We haven't played with them for 60 minutes, and you have to play all 60 minutes. We can go on and talk about a play, and there are all kinds of plays in that contest, but that's the difference. The difference is 60 minutes of those suckers."
Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo was effusive in his praise for the job Ellerson has done, taking over a program that was deep in the doldrums and returning it to respectability. The rivalry is finally a rivalry again, and Niumatalolo thinks that's a good thing for both academies.
Still, he's quick to point out that his Midshipmen have a chance to match the school record with 10 wins when they play San Diego State in the Poinsettia Bowl on Dec. 23. It would be the first time in school history that Navy has reached the plateau in consecutive seasons.
So while Army may be closing the gap ever so slightly, Navy is still king of the hill.
"Every time you play them, you're always concerned. Coach Ellerson has done a great job and they are bowl eligible," Niumatalolo said. "They are a good, well-coached football team, and we feel very fortunate to come away with a W.
"They've gotten better," he said, "but we're not a bad team ourselves."