By BILL WAGNER
Army Navy game 2021
The Naval Academy Mids face off against the United States Military Academy West Point Black Knights at MetLife Stadium …MORE(Adam Hunger/AP)
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — It isn’t often the defining play of the Army-Navy game is a mistake, but that was the case Saturday as darkness descended over MetLife Stadium in the 122nd rendition of “America’s Game.”
Leading 14-13 with 13:35 left, Navy faced fourth-and-1 from its own 38-yard line. Coach Ken Niumatalolo, showing faith in his defense that had pitched a third-quarter shutout, decided to play it safe as he called for a punt.ADVERTISING
Senior Diego Fagot, an All-American Athletic Conference inside linebacker and Navy’s best all-around player, is an up blocker on the punt team — positioned to the left side of the formation and just behind the blocking wall. One of Fagot’s jobs is to scan the alignment and call the blocking protection scheme.
What Fagot saw was six rushers on the right side and just two on the left.
Freshman long snapper Ethan Nguyen admitted after the 17-13 win that he could not hear Fagot as the roar of 82,282 fans drowned out the sound on the field. Navy’s coaching staff had installed a fake punt into the game plan, so Nguyen simply assumed that was what Fagot was calling for.
“It got really loud and I couldn’t hear. I saw [Fagot’s] mouth moving, and only knew one other check to do, so I snapped it to him,” Nguyen explained later.
It could have been disastrous, a momentum swing that might easily have given Army great field position and an opportunity to take the lead. Fagot had no idea the ball was coming his way, and compounding matters was the fact his attention was elsewhere. A bullet of a snap from Nguyen nearly smacked Fagot in the facemask. Nonetheless, the 6-foot-3, 240-pounder made a catch any wide receiver would be jealous of.
“I was supposed to block the closest guy to the snapper, so I was kind of looking in that direction,” Fagot said. “It was just a reaction play, honestly.”
Fagot caught the snap but instead of cutting inside between blockers, he went outside where a defender was free in pursuit behind the line to gain. The two clashed with momentum of the game on the line.
“As a linebacker, you kind of have tunnel vision. I wasn’t really expecting to get the ball, so when I caught it, I just started running straight and it just so happened to be right into a guy,” Fagot said.
Fagot broke that tackle attempt with a strong stiff arm and picked up the 1 yard needed to extend the drive. He then jumped over another defender to gain 4 yards that proved to be the play of the game. The Midshipmen picked up two third-down conversions, moved into enemy territory and set up kicker Bijan Nichols for a 43-yard field goal that increased the lead to four points, forcing the Black Knights to score a touchdown that never materialized in order to win.
“It wasn’t supposed to be a fake. We were supposed to punt it,” said Navy senior slotback Chance Warren, a member of the coverage unit. “Heads up play by Diego. That just speaks to him as a player — his head is always in the game. He didn’t panic for a second and ran through one guy then hurdled over another one.”
Nguyen, who never expected to be interviewed by the media outside the Navy locker room following the game, was grateful Fagot prevented him from forever being remembered for the wrong reason.
“Diego caught it in the corner of his eye,” Nguyen said of the snap. “In the moment, I was really thankful that he saved me. Great athlete and great player. Momentum changed and we got a lot more minutes off that possession.[
“My bad. Mistake on my part, but I’m just thankful we got the win.”
Fagot thought about all the times Navy had things go against it during this difficult season. The Midshipmen suffered four losses by a touchdown or less and there were many 50-50 plays that always seemed to favor the opposition.
“To be honest, I don’t think the ball has bounced our way the whole year. For once, it finally did,” Fagot said.Bill WagnerCONTACT
Bill Wagner has worked for Capital Gazette Newspapers for 30 years. He served as beat writer for Navy athletics and general assignment sports reporter. He is also the sailing editor.