For many years, the primary topic of discussion during the annual media day in advance of the Army-Navy game surrounded “the streak.’’
Navy beat Army for 14 straight seasons and the streak eventually took on a life of its own.
Media focus on the streak intensified around 2006 after Navy had won five in a row, thereby equaling the longest run of success by either side in the series that began way back in 1890.
Johnson left Navy following the 2007 season having never lost to Army, finishing 6-0 versus the archrival. Ken Niumatalolo was promoted to replace his mentor and promptly started off 8-0 against Army – surpassing the legendary Earl “Red” Blaik as the head coach with the most wins in the series.
Army went through five different head coaches over the course of its 14-game losing streak to Navy – Todd Berry, Bobby Ross, Stan Brock, Rich Ellerson and Jeff Monken. That does not include John Mumford, who was interim coach when the Black Knights were beaten 34-6 by the Midshipmen in 2003.
All of a sudden, there is a new streak to talk about. Army has beaten Navy two years in a row and figures to be favored when the service academy showdown commences on Dec. 8 at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia.
“It’s not really about the streak. It’s about winning the next game. That is what Army football is all about,” Army starting center and tri-captain Bryce Holland said. “We always talk about going 1-0 each week. So we’re not worried about holding on to some streak. We’re concerned with winning this next game against Navy.”
Army has enjoyed its second straight strong season and will enter the annual showdown with a sparkling 9-2 record. Meanwhile, Navy has endured a tremendously disappointing season that has produced a 3-9 mark.
That is the Midshipmen’s worst record since finishing 2-10 in 2002 while this is only the program’s second losing season since then.
Despite the dramatic disparity in on-field performance, Army head coach Jeff Monken is no more confident going into this year’s matchup as he was in 2016 when Navy was riding the historic 14-game winning streak.
“I’m scared to death, just like I always am leading up to this game,” Monken said. “For one, I know that Navy is really well-coached. I know Kenny and his staff will have their team very well prepared.”
Monken, who was an assistant at Navy under Johnson, scoffed when reminded that Navy has only won three games this season. In his first three seasons at West Point, Monken faced a Navy team that came in with a winning record.
“Navy is not any different than it was a year ago. They played (eight) bowl teams this season,” Monken said. “Look at that league. Teams like Houston, Central Florida, Memphis and Cincinnati are extremely talented. They’re going against a bunch of really good teams.”
Monken also noted that Navy lost to SMU by a point in overtime and to Tulane by a point as well. Those were among four American Athletic Conference contests the Midshipmen could have won as they also blew leads against both Temple (24-17) and Houston (49-36)
“I know who they are. Navy has the exact same kids we have in our locker room. They’re competitive, they’re tough and they’re disciplined,” said Monken, who now owns a 33-28 record in five seasons at Army.
“It’s two teams that are as similar in terms of the type of players we put on the field and the way we play football and the way we coach as any two teams in the country. I know how tough this game is going to be to win,” Monken added.
Niumatalolo had rehearsed the same scripted answers to the inevitable questions about Navy’s remarkable winning streak against Army. He would say that each game was different, that past wins would not help his team in that particular season and that most Army-Navy games tended to be close, hard-fought affairs.
Now that the script has flipped, the same sentiments are coming from the opposite side.
“This game is usually decided by a touchdown or less so there is no reason to expect anything different this time around,” Holland said. “Both teams are going to come out and fight like crazy and it’s going to be an exciting, competitive football game. We know we’re going to get Navy’s best shot and we had better be ready to give Navy our best shot.”
While it may sound cliché, there is definitely truth to those words. Star quarterback Keenan Reynolds led the way as Navy set a program record by winning 11 games in 2015. The Midshipmen made interceptions on the last two drives of the game to edge the Black Knights, 21-17, that season.
“That year when we won 11 games, which was the best team we’ve had since I’ve been here, we had to pick off a pass as time expired in order to barely beat Army,” Niumatalolo noted.
Likewise, last season was the most successful in two decades for Army as Monken directed a 10-3 campaign that culminated with a 42-35 victory over San Diego State in the Armed Forces Bowl. However, the Black Knights had to hold their breath while watching a 48-yard field goal attempt by Bennett Moehring narrowly miss as time expired in order to escape with a 14-13 win against the Midshipmen a year ago.
“It’s not like they’ve killed us the last couple seasons. If we make the field goal last year we win that game,” Niumatalolo said. “I don’t come into this game any differently than I did when we were winning.”
Niumatalolo recalled being asked if Navy had gained great confidence it would beat Army every year because of the lengthy winning streak. Now the media is wondering how worried the 11th-year head coach is because Army has gone 19-5 the past two seasons.
“Someone asked if I felt more confident about beating Army when we had the winning streak. No, I’m always nervous going into this game,” Niumatalolo said. “Now people are wondering if we’re scared. No, I feel like we can win.
“It’s Army-Navy. It’s always going to be a great battle. These two teams are always so close. There is never a major disparity in terms of talent and ability,” Niumatalolo added.
That is not to say that Navy does not respect what Army has accomplished. Starting fullback and offensive captain Anthony Gargiulo said the Mids, to a man, applaud the archrival for turning things around on the gridiron.
“I know Army’s had a really good season and the program has come a long way. That being said, we’re not going to just lie down and let them keep this win streak going,” said Gargiulo, who was surprisingly happy to hear that most pundits believe Army will beat Navy again.
“Actually, I kind of enjoy it more. I like coming into things as the underdog. I know when Army was 2-9 they would play like the best team we faced all season. Well, they can expect to get the same type of effort out of us,” Gargiulo said. “When you consider the emotion, the passion and the determination to win this game – it’s on another level. Both sides are always going to bring it because they want so badly to beat each other.”
Starting safety and defensive captain Sean Williams sounded eerily similar to Army captains of the past when asked about Navy having a two-game losing streak in the series.
“We recognize that every year is different, every game is different. What happened in the past has no bearing. Every game in this rivalry is a real battle,” Williams said. “It really doesn’t matter if one team had a good season and the other didn’t. This game is always going to be close. I think there is always respect on both sides. We both know who we’re playing and that we are always going to get best effort from each other.”
Williams did acknowledge a win against the archrival would take some of the sting out of an otherwise forgettable season.
“Of course, being able to beat Army would wipe away some of the things that happened this season. It wouldn’t erase everything, but it would definitely be uplifting,” he admitted.
Standout linebacker Cole Christiansen is part of an Army junior class that has not lost to Navy. The Suffolk, Virginia native came to West Point because he believed Monken had the football program on the right course.
“My intention coming into West Point was to start beating Navy again. When Coach Monken came to my house he said the tide is about to turn, you just have to believe and trust me on that,” Christiansen said.
“My freshman year, we hadn’t beaten Navy in 14 years so there was a lot of pride and passion among the seniors that things were going to change. They were like ‘We have to beat Navy.’ I could definitely feel the energy the whole season.”
Reynolds and his Class of 2016 teammates were the last of a long line of Navy seniors that went 4-0 versus Army. Christiansen would like to be part of the first Army class to accomplish that feat since those seniors that graduated in 1997.
“That would mean everything because it hasn’t been done at West Point in a long time,” he said. “That was my mission coming here: to never lose to Navy. So we definitely want to keep it going.”