FOXBOROUGH — The 124th edition of the Army-Navy football rivalry was playing out like so many of the previous editions, with both teams keeping the ball on the ground in a low-scoring affair and the Black Knights leading by 7 points midway through the fourth quarter.
When Army linebacker Kalib Fortner forced a strip-sack of Navy quarterback Tai Lavatai and rumbled 44 yards for a touchdown to expand the lead to 14 points with 4:49 remaining, the game appeared over.
But the Black Knights had to withstand a furious rally by Navy to hold on for a 17-11 win Saturday, a goal-line stop with three seconds remaining to keep Lavatai out of the end zone on fourth and goal from the 2-yard line securing the victory at Gillette Stadium.
“It was crazy, that final drive,” Fortner said. “We just had to knock him down and make sure that clock hit triple zero. It was frantic, to make sure they didn’t get in was the objective.”
Army (6-6) entered the fourth quarter with a 10-0 lead, putting the first points on board in the second quarter when Navy failed to cover tight end Tyson Riley at the 4 yard-line. Black Knights quarterback Bryson Daily (7 for 14, 54 yards, touchdown) found Riley alone in the end zone before the Navy safety could rotate over, and the Black Knights were up, 7-0, following Quinn Maretzki’s PAT.
Maretzki would cap the scoring in the first half, his 47-yard field goal as time expired sending Army into the break with a 10-0 lead.
That’s how it would stay, with neither team able to score in the third quarter, which ended with Navy (5-7) marching deep into Army territory. The drive would eventually stall early in the fourth, but Navy would get on the board on Nathan Kirkwood’s 37-yard field goal to pull within 10-3 with 12:45 remaining.
After the teams exchanged punts, Navy started to put a drive together, converting a third and 10 from their own 30 when Lavatai (16 for 26, 179 yards, touchdown) connected with Eli Heidenreich for a 20-yard pass to midfield. But Fortner turned the game around with his strip sack, giving Army a two-touchdown cushion with 4:49 to play.
“They were showing on film that they were kind of loose with the ball when they were in the pocket,” Fortner said. “I hit the ball, and it’s almost like I planned it, the way it hit my hands. I just started running and I saw on the Jumbotron a sea of gold jerseys behind me and I kind of let off, but it was a surreal moment.”
Lavatai, who came on in the second quarter after starter Xavier Arline struggled, nearly brought the Midshipmen back. He engineered a seven-play, 59-yard drive in just over two minutes that culminated in a 14-yard pass to Jayden Umbarger with 2:47 left.
The 2-point conversion attempt failed, but Navy had pulled to within 17-9. The Midshipmen tried an onside kick, but Army recovered in Navy territory. After the Black Knights went three and out, the Midshipmen would have one more chance, starting on their own 27 with 1:39 on the clock and no timeouts.
Again, Lavatai went to work, connecting with Heidenreich for 37 yards and for 10 with Umbarger. When Lavatai hooked up with Brandon Chatman for another 11 yards, Navy had first and goal at the 6 with 30 seconds remaining. After a pair of incompletions, Alex Tecza was hauled down after a 4-yard reception at the 2 to set up fourth and goal. Down to the last play, Lavatai was stuffed inside the 1 on a quarterback sneak.
With the ball turned over on downs and three seconds remaining, Army instructed Daily to run the clock out in the end zone and take the safety, accounting for the 17-11 final.
“I think it was part of our bend-but-don’t-break mentality,” Black Knights linebacker and captain Leo Lowin said. “They got all the way down there, but they couldn’t get it in. They had to get it in, and we just held up.”
With the win, Army returned the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy to West Point for the first time since 2020.
“It feels amazing,” Daily said. “That’s something we’ve been working toward all season. We’ve had a picture of Air Force holding that trophy in our trophy case where it’s supposed to be. That hurts seeing that every day. I’m going to love seeing it Monday morning when we have it at the facility.”
Follow Andrew Mahoney @GlobeMahoney.