By Don Markus
The Baltimore Sun
6:45 PM EST, December 13, 2013
The two programs share a 113-game history and a common longterm goal — protecting the nation's security — but that is where the current football teams from Army and Navy diverge in distinctly different directions.
If Navy's 11-game winning streak over its service academy rival is something coach Ken Niumatalolo and his Midshipmen don't talk about much, it has become an a 170-pound albatross in the form of the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy for the Black Knights.
"Because we haven't won in a while, it does have some kind of effect on us, but we leave the management of the outside voices to the coaches," Army defensive end Bobby Kough said this week. "We focus on the Xs and Os and what we can do on the field to control that."
The current Midshipmen, much like their brethren from the past decade, don't want to see this coveted prize slip through their collective grasp when Navy (7-4) plays Army (3-8) Saturday at Philadelphia's Lincoln Financial Field.
Combined with Navy's 28-10 win over Air Force in Annpolis on Oct. 5 and Army's 42-28 loss at Air Force on Nov. 2, a 12th straight Navy victory will give the Midshipmen the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy for the second straight year and the ninth time in 11 seasons.
"I couldn't imagine losing to those guys. I don't want to know that feeling," Navy senior linebacker and co-captain Cody Peterson said after practice Wednesday.
It nearly happened last year, but after an 8-yard go-ahead touchdown run by Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds with 4:41 remaining gave the Midshipmen the lead, a late fumble by Army fullback Larry Dixon at the Navy 14-yard line prevented the Black Knights from ending the streak.
Peterson said that the final minutes of last year's 17-13 victory, secured when nose tackle Barry Dabney recovered Dixon's fumble, was "way too close for comfort, but somehow we've found a way to finish for the last 11 years.
"It's just a testament to our coaches and how they get us ready."
Part of the preparation for Navy is trying to keep the magnitude of the game out of the minds of the players, which is difficult, given the attention throughout the country.
Niumatalolo does his best to downplay his team's winning streak.
"I never talk about it, because none of those other 11 games has any bearing on the game this Saturday. Our approach has always been [to] prepare for this game," Niumatalolo said. "There's so much stuff that happens outside.
"I don't know how many helicopters are going to fly over or what color the balloons are going to be or what time the march-on happens. My thing is just make sure we're prepared between the white lines and know exactly to do when the ball is kicked off."
Said Reynolds: "New year, new teams, can't really get concerned with the past years because those aren't the teams that are playing. We've just got to focus on the now. Like I've said many times and Coach has said many times, 'Looking in the rear-view [mirror] can get you beat.'"
Army is coming into this year's game with several key players out with injuries. Slotback Raymond Maples, a two-time 1,000-yard rusher, has been out most of the season with a groin injury. Dixon broke his wrist and is also not expected play. Only one defensive player, safety Shaquille Tolbert, has suited up for all 11 games.
"I do feel that we've had way too much," Army coach Rich Ellerson said of his team's injuries. "Good football teams don't have that many players coming in and out of the lineup. They just don't."
While Navy has five players headed for ACL surgery after the season and had another, safety Chris Ferguson, retire in mid-season after suffering a series of concucssions, the Midshipmen have used the three weeks since their last game to get healthier.
Sophomore nose tackle Bernie Sarra, who suffered a displaced fracture in his leg against Notre Dame in early November, will be back. So will junior fullback Noah Copeland, who has missed the past four games, and sophomore fullback Chris Swain, who has missed three of the past four.
"I know we've been hurt, but in sports nobody cares if somebody gets hurt, the next guy has to step up," Niumatalolo said. "Football is a physical game. People get hurt. It's part of the deal, unfortunately, so I've been grateful that when guys here have been hurt other guys have stepped up."
Despite being nearly a two-touchdown favorite this week, Navy's chance for a blowout victory could be impacted by what is expected to be a rain-soaked (and possibly snow-covered) field.
And despite the difference in the records the past few years, Army has been steadily closing the gap in this game since Navy won 37-3 in Paul Johnson's last season in 2007 and 34-0 in Niumatalolo's first in 2008.
"We were arguably the better team last year, but we came up short because of some mistakes and mental errors on our part," Kough said. "It's going to be a fight. It comes down to who makes the fewest mistakes and who comes prepared."
Niumatalolo has been on the losing end in this game, in three of four years as an assistant from 1995 through 1998 under Charlie Weatherbie as well as the first season under Johnson in 2001. The Midshipmen won the next year, finishing a 2-10 season with a 58-12 win over Army at Giants Stadium, to start the current streak.
"It must be tough to lose to your rival, so I know they're going to come to battle and give everything they've got. That's who they are," Niumatalolo said. "West Point peeople are tough people. Coach Ellerson is a tough sucker, and I know those players are tough kids. I know they're not going to look at the record, and they're to come ready to go."
Army (3-8) vs. Navy (7-4)
When: Saturday, 3 p.m.
Site: Lincoln Financial Field, Philadelphia
Radio: 1090 AM, 1430 AM
Series: Navy leads, 57-49-7
Last meeting: Navy won, 17-13, in Philadelphia on Dec. 8, 2012
Navy offense vs. Army defense: The Black Knights did a good job keeping Keenan Reynolds in check until the fourth quarter of last year's game, but Reynolds comes into this year's game at another level and with a deep and now healthy group of fullbacks and slotsbacks to support him. Reynolds needs just one touchdown to tie the Football Bowl Subdivision single-season record of 27 rushing touchdowns shared by former Navy quarterback Ricky Dobbs and former Kansas State quarterback Collin Klein. His supporting cast includes fullback Noah Copeland, who rushed for 99 yards and a touchdown last year against Army and had a breakout 153-yard rushing performance this season at Toledo before getting hurt the next week against Pittsburgh. Copeland will share the load at fullback with sophomore Chris Swain, who had a season-high 85 yards and a touchdown at Notre Dame before also getting injured. Junior Quinton Singleton, who took over in their absence, rushed for 77 yards at Notre Dame and 93 yards and a touchdown against Hawaii. The revolving door of slotbacks — which includes seniors Darius Staten and Marcus Thomas, junior Geoffrey Whiteside and sophomores Demond Brown and DeBrandon Sanders — has combined for nearly 1,400 yards and nine TDs. But it is Reynolds whom Army will undoubtedly focus its effort on after watching him rush for 240 yards and seven touchdowns against San Jose State. Given how the Black Knights often play press coverage, it could also help Reynolds throw for more than the 130 yards he did a year ago (on 10 of 17 passsing), either looking to one of his slotbacks out of the backfield or to dependable senior wide receiver Casey Bolena (13 catches for 164 yards).
Navy defense vs. Army offense: The Midshipmen have been susceptible to giving up huge chunks of yardage and a fair share of points against teams that throw the ball, but the Black Knights rank 123rd in passing (80.1 yards per game), last among FBS teams but right behind Navy. Army does lead the country in rushing (323.6), two spots ahead of the Midshipmen. Junior Terry Baggett has done a nice job replacing Raymond Maples, who missed most of the season because of a groin injury. Baggett leads the Black Knights with 1,072 yards and eight TDs. Senior fullback Larry Dixon, whose late fumble a year ago helped the Midshipmen preserve their 11th straight win in the rivalry, was Army's second-leading rusher this year but suffered a season-ending arm injury in a Nov. 9 loss at Western Kentucky. Junior quarterback Angel Santiago has been intercepted just once, but he has contributed to the Black Knights losing 11 of their 18 fumbles (compared to Navy losing four of 11). Though Navy is ranked 87th in rushing defense (188.8 yards allowed per game), the Midshipmen are 28th in red zone defense. While Navy doesn't have a dominant defensive player, the Midshipmen have a solid group of playmakers led by senior linebacker Cody Peterson, whose 124 tackles have him ranked fourth in the country in tackles per game (11.3). For Army to hang in there, the Black Knights have to control the ball, something they have done well (12th overall in time of possession).
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