Remembering an instantly immortal week in academy football history

Corps of Cadets
(U.S. Army photo by Michelle Eberhart)

No matter which service academy team you root for, and no matter which team you will cheer on in this Saturday’s Army-Navy Game, we can all agree on one thing: The week of December 12-19, 2020, will always be one of the most special and historic weeks we have ever seen in the world of service academy football.

Two straight Saturdays, two straight games at venerable Michie Stadium in West Point, two straight academy football games with lots of defense and an abundance of emotion from players who were playing in front of their fellow academy students, and hardly anyone else.

It was the first December of the pandemic – a month with so much more fear and uncertainty than this one, a year later – which meant that the general public could not attend these Commander-In-Chief’s Trophy games. The Army-Navy Game came to a campus site for the first time since World War II. Though fans had to watch on television, the spectacle of Navy playing in West Point was riveting and compelling, the moment instantly historic in a way no other modern Army-Navy Game would ever be.

Navy was painted in one of the end zones at Michie Stadium, something the Midshipmen and everyone in Annapolis will treasure as an “I remember when I saw that” moment. So many special sights and sensations were created by this pandemic-adjusted week, in which Army and Michie Stadium hosted both Navy and Air Force in consecutive weeks.

The two games contained plenty of mistakes, but they possessed the supreme drama and emotion – and vivid turning points – which make service academy football such an irresistible spectacle.

Let’s start with Army-Navy 2020, on Dec. 12 in Michie Stadium.

The iconic moment from this game – the “never give up” moment which so thoroughly defines the ethos of the service academies themselves – was in the third quarter, with Army clinging to a tenuous 3-0 lead.

Navy quarterback Xavier Arline busted loose and broke into the open field. He was on his way to the end zone, poised to give Navy a 7-3 lead in a game with very little offense. It could have been the decisive turning point Navy needed.

The play became a turning point, but not in the way Navy hoped.

Army’s Cedric Cunningham did not tire of the chase. He could have relented, but he did not, and he managed to push Arline out of bounds at the 2-yard line. Delaying the inevitable, right?

Wrong.

Army stoned Navy on four attempts at the goal line to preserve its lead. Cunningham’s ability to fight to the very end of a play instead of conceding a touchdown became an instantly emblematic display of what playing for a service academy team is all about.

Navy also had a chance to pick up a fumble and take it to the house for six defensive points, but the Midshipmen couldn’t do it. Army took advantage of that play and the goal-line stand, adding 12 points late in the contest to score a 15-0 win and Sing Second on its home field against Navy.

That will always remain a memory of a lifetime for every Black Knight player who was able to soak up the experience in Michie Stadium.

Army beat Navy. What a triumph, what a complete emptying of the fuel tank that game required, as it always does.

Great season, right? Job done? On to the bowl game!

NOPE. There was still another game to play due to the pandemic-adjusted schedule.

Army had to beat Air Force the next week to lock up the Commander-In-Chief’s Trophy for 2020.

Midway through the fourth quarter, it didn’t look very good. Air Force led 7-3 and was in the Army red zone. However, the Black Knights and Jabari Moore picked off AFA quarterback Haaziq Daniels at the goal line to maintain a four-point deficit. Air Force failed to land the kill shot, but crucially, it didn’t even get three points for a 10-3 advantage, which would have meant that overtime would have been the worst-case scenario for the Falcons. At 7-3, they were in danger of losing a game in which they had largely outplayed an Army team which was running on fumes after the Navy win.

Army pounced on this opportunity after getting a reprieve thanks to its defense.

Army converted multiple fourth downs on an epic game-winning drive which will always be remembered as one of the greatest drives in the history of the United States Military Academy at West Point. Jakobi Buchanan crashed through the line on fourth down to score the go-ahead touchdown with 1:13 left. Army then intercepted Daniels one more time to complete the 10-7 win and capture the Commander-In-Chief’s Trophy in a way which will never be replicated again (or so we think).

Two Saturdays. Two of the most instantly famous games in Michie Stadium history. Two wins for Army. Two emotional, one-of-a-kind spectacles no academy football fan will ever forget.

One year later, the week of December 12-19, 2020, remains unlike any other week in service academy football history. This year’s Army-Navy Game bathes in the memory of that special December, one which will resonate for a very long time whenever service academy football’s golden moments are discussed.