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Chief concern for Navy

The Baltimore Sun

In terms of length and lore, the rivalry between Navy and Air Force does not come close to approaching the storied 118-year marathon between the Midshipmen and Army.

"Army is bigger in the sense that it's America's game. That's the one that's played on national television," Navy linebacker Clint Sovie said this week. "The Army game has all the festivities. ... Air Force does not. To the outsider, I'm sure it looks a lot different. It is about the same for us."

Said Air Force athletic director Hans Mueh: "[Army-Navy is] a history lesson. We're the youngsters on the block."

This recently relevant rivalry that began with Joe Bellino leading the Midshipmen to a 35-3 victory at Memorial Stadium in 1960 has become more about football than fanfare, more about hitting than history.

The Navy-Air Force game centers on the Commander in Chief's Trophy, given to the service academy that boasts the best record against the other two each season.

With Army out of the equation since 1996 and not showing any signs of getting back into the fray, this year's chase will likely come down to today's game between Navy (3-2) and Air Force (3-1) at Falcon Stadium in Colorado Springs, Colo.

"It boils down to a game, and the game creates a rivalry similar in feel to some of the rivalries you might see in Division I at other institutions - a Michigan-Notre Dame or an Auburn-Alabama or a Colorado-Colorado State," Navy AD Chet Gladchuk said.

"It's a focal point of the season. It has year-wide ramifications because it has been such a part of the end result of the Commander in Chief's Trophy."

The trophy has been around since 1972. After Army won the inaugural one, Navy won or retained it eight of the next nine years. Starting in 1982, Air Force dominated, taking it home 17 times in 21 seasons.

From Navy's standpoint, the rivalry with Air Force started getting a little tense the day a talented high school quarterback being recruited by both schools turned down the Midshipmen on his recruiting visit in favor of the Falcons.

Shaun Carney sat in Paul Johnson's office shortly after the Midshipmen finished 2-10 in 2002, Johnson's first season. It came at a time when Air Force had beaten Navy 19 times in that 21-year stretch.

"You can't win at Navy," Carney, then a junior in high school, told Johnson, according to those familiar with the situation.

As things turned out, Carney never beat Navy during his career at Air Force.

When the Midshipmen stopped a six-year run by the Falcons in 2003, marking the first time Navy won the trophy since 1981, it didn't sit well in Colorado Springs.

"It's almost like they're holding our stuff," Air Force fullback Adam Cole said the next year. "It really doesn't belong to them."

Current Air Force tight end Travis Dekker understands what Cole and Carney went though.

"There's no doubt it's frustrating that none of our guys have ever seen the trophy up close and personal," Dekker said. "It's something that we definitely set as a high priority."

The buildup to this season's game began last year in Annapolis, shortly after Navy beat Air Force, 31-20, at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium. On the field after the game, Mueh predicted a victory for the Falcons this season.

This week Mueh said he made his statement in a heated moment after the Midshipmen scored twice in the final 13 minutes to win.

"My reaction wasn't with any disrespect toward Navy," Mueh said. "We had suffered through three straight frustrating seasons. My reaction was one of encouragement because we had played a pretty good game, and it was more, 'Hey, it looks like we're turning the corner.' "

While trash-talking is not typical among the service academy teams, the mounting frustration of the Falcons has led to more than a few inflammatory remarks, some of which have made their way onto the walls of the Navy locker room at Ricketts Hall.

"I hear they're saying a lot of stuff," Sovie said coyly Wednesday. "Coach [Fisher] DeBerry liked to talk a lot. I think they've toned it down a little bit. As far as what their AD said, I don't think you can guarantee a win in a game like this. It's just a tough game every year."

navy today

Matchup: Navy (3-2) at Air Force (3-1)

Time: 4 p.m.

Site: Falcon Stadium, Colorado Springs, Colo.

TV: VS.

Radio: 1090 AM

Line: Air Force by 41/2

Series: Air Force leads 25-15 (Navy has won the past five).

Last meeting: Midshipmen won, 31-20, on Sept. 29, 2007, in Annapolis.

Navy offense vs. Air Force defense: For the first time this season, Navy fell to second among Football Bowl Subdivision teams in rushing. Part of the reason was that Shun White, who led the nation in rushing the first three weeks, was held to 20 yards on 11 carries against Wake Forest. If quarterback Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada can't play because of his reinjured hamstring, then Jarod Bryant (above) needs to do a better job reading the defense and getting the ball to White and fullback Eric Kettani (175 yards vs. Wake Forest) at the right time.

Navy defense vs. Air Force offense: The Midshipmen have played well defensively in winning the past two weeks against Wake Forest and Rutgers, but they will need to stop one of the nation's most varied rushing attacks. Quarterback Shea Smith has done an adequate job replacing Shaun Carney, and by shuttling a group of running backs throughout the game, the Falcons have been fresh down the stretch. The Midshipmen will have to stack the box to slow down Air Force, which has the nation's sixth-ranked rushing offense, but know Smith is capable of throwing if necessary.

Prediction: Air Force 21, Navy 14

Don Markus

down to the wire

The past five Navy-Air Force games have been decided in the fourth quarter:

2007: Navy 31, Air Force 20 ... The Falcons rushed and threw for the same yardage - 237 each - but failed to hold a 20-17 lead as the Midshipmen erased their deficit with two touchdowns in the final 13 minutes.

2006: Navy 24, Air Force 17 ... After building a 24-7 lead early in the fourth quarter, the Falcons closed the gap to seven points with 3:06 left. The Falcons got the ball back, but Rashawn King knocked away a fourth-down pass to seal it.

2005: Navy 27, Air Force 24 ... Reggie Campbell's 40-yard touchdown run with 2:22 left helped tie the score, and Joey Bullen made a winning 46-yard field goal with less than a second left.

2004: Navy 24, Air Force 21 ... After Air Force tied the score with 2:21 left, Geoff Blumenfeld's first successful field goal of the season came with four seconds remaining at Falcon Stadium.

2003: Navy 28, Air Force 25 ... Kyle Eckel's 4-yard touchdown run with 7:35 left at FedEx Field sealed the victory over the 25th-ranked Falcons. It was Navy's first win in the series since 1996.

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