Fourteen years. That’s how long Navy went without losing to Air Force and Army in the same season.
Everyone associated with the Navy football program hopes it doesn’t happen again for at least that long.
Getting swept by their service academy rivals was the low point of an otherwise successful 2016 campaign for the Midshipmen. It was a bitter pill to swallow, especially for the seniors.
For Navy, the redemption tour starts Saturday afternoon when it hosts Air Force in Annapolis. Momentum is on the side of the Midshipmen, who enter the annual showdown undefeated for the second time in the span of three seasons.
Navy is 4-0 for just the second time during the 10-year tenure of head coach Ken Niumatalolo. Beating Air Force at home, 33-11, enabled Navy to start 4-0 in 2015 as well. Now the Midshipmen are hoping a defeat of the Falcons will produce the first five-game winning streak to start a season since 2004.
“We have a ton of respect for Air Force. A great football program with a great coaching staff. Troy Calhoun is one of the best head coaches in the country,” Niumatalolo said on Monday during the American Athletic Conference weekly head coach’s teleconference.
Air Forces comes to town on a three-game losing streak after getting blown out by New Mexico, 56-38, on Saturday night. It was a surprising result considering Air Force had played pretty well in suffering consecutive losses to a pair of ranked opponents in No. 7 Michigan (29-13) and No. 22 San Diego State (28-24).
“Same old Air Force. Always a good program. They have played everyone tough,” Niumatalolo said when asked what he sees in watching film of the Falcons. “We know the players because a lot them we recruited. We’re going to have our hands full.”
This marks the 50th meeting between Navy and Air Force with the winner going on to capture the coveted Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy every year since 1997. The Midshipmen were outright winners of the three-sided trophy that features the seals of all three service academies 10 times between 2003 and 2015.
Air Force and Navy have traded the trophy back-and-forth the past four seasons and the Annapolis contingent can only hope that trend continues. Niumatalolo was asked on Monday if he needs to remind his players where the CIC Trophy currently resides.
“These kids are a lot smarter than me. If I have to remind them of that, they probably couldn’t have gotten into the Naval Academy,” Niumatalolo said. “The Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy and winning the conference are our two biggest goals. This is the first leg and it’s going to be a battle, a real tough game.”
Air Force pretty much dominated Navy last year in posting a convincing 28-14 victory in Colorado Springs. Quarterback Nate Romine threw touchdown passes of 75 yards to Jalen Robinette and 62 yards to Tim McVey as the Falcons took a 20-0 lead early in the fourth quarter and never looked back. The Midshipmen scored a touchdown in the final seconds to make the final score seem more respectable.
Navy was unable to run the ball against an Air Force defense that stacked the box and pressed line of scrimmage. Quarterback Will Worth looked slow and indecisive as the Midshipmen managed a mere 57 rushing yard on 38 attempts.
Offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper was forced to throw the ball in order to generate any semblance of offense. Worth completed 17 of 30 passes for 260 yards, but also tossed two interceptions.
Air Force and Navy both employ option offenses so it was the rare meeting between the rivals in which much of the damage was done through the air. The Falcons finished with 257 yards passing, although that production was bolstered by 173 yards rushing.
“I think a lot of it is that we’re both so aggressive. Air Force puts a lot of defenders on the line of scrimmage. We threw a lot to try to back them up,” Niumatalolo said when asked about all the passing that took place in last year’s game. “They’re tough to run the ball against. They know what they’re doing and have a really good plan.”
Romine is still at Air Force, but he is no longer the starting quarterback, having lost the job to junior Arion Worthman. McVey is back and leads the Falcons in rushing with 278 yards and three touchdowns. Worthman has run for 250 yards and three touchdowns, passed for 396 yards and six scores. Sophomore Geraud Sanders has succeeded Jalen Robinette as the primary receiver and has seven catches for 147 yards and three touchdowns.
Air Force has greatly expanded its offensive repertoire during the 11-year tenure of Calhoun, who has maintained the identity of the option while adding numerous wrinkles in terms of alignment and motion.
“They give people fits because they attack you in so many ways – under center, in the gun,” Niumatalolo said.
This will be the debut matchup with Air Force for starting quarterback Zach Abey, who made his first career start in last year’s Army-Navy game. The Archbishop Spalding product leads the Midshipmen in rushing with 656 yards and seven touchdowns on 117 carries.
Abey was named American Athletic Conference Co-Offensive Player of the Week on Monday in recognition of his performance in leading Navy to a 31-21 defeat of Tulsa. The Pasadena resident ran for 185 yards and three touchdowns and was not stopped for a loss on 36 rushing attempts.
“I’ve been really proud of the way Zach has played the last two games. He’s done a really good job of running our offense and taking care of the ball,” Niumatalolo said during Monday’s teleconference. “He’s a really tough, hard-nosed kid – a tough guy to tackle inside the box. A good kid who is humble and keeps working hard.”
Navy’s players immediately turned their attention to Air Force following Saturday’s win. Six Midshipmen were brought to the post-game press conference and three made reference to the Falcons. Sophomore slotback Malcolm Perry acknowledged the Mids could not afford to commit the penalties and turnovers that have plagued them so far this season.
“It’s always a close game with Air Force and usually comes down to which team makes the fewest mistakes so we have to cut down on the mental errors,” he said.
Added Abey: “It’s great to get off to a strong start, but right now we have to focus on Air Force. That’s going to be a huge game, it’s at home and we lost to them last year. So we’re going to try to get to 5-0.”