Oct. 6, 2012: The date of the last Navy victory over Air Force in Colorado Springs.
If the Midshipmen hope to reclaim the coveted Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy, they will need to snap a four-game losing streak at Falcon Stadium on Saturday.
There may be one good omen for Navy, that 2012 contest, which saw freshman quarterback Keenan Reynolds come off the bench to lead a 28-21 overtime victory, was a 9:30 a.m. kickoff.
This year’s matchup will get underway at 10 a.m. Mountain time, noon on the East Coast.
Senior defensive captain John Marshall is not concerned with the early start time, which will require the Navy traveling party to depart the team hotel in Denver before 7 a.m.
“I prefer earlier games. I’m always up early here,” Marshall said. “I loved playing early when I was a kid. Going at 10 a.m. is perfectly fine for me and I think all the guys feel the same.”
Air Force (3-1), which has won two straight in the series, is an early 15-point favorite. Quarterback Haaziq Daniels directs a powerful offense averaging 37.8 points and leads the nation in rushing with 465 yards per game.
Navy counters with the fifth-ranked rushing defense in the Football Bowl Subdivision, allowing only 69 yards per game on the ground.
“They’ve got a really good run game. They’re a service academy team so they’re going to be a hard-nosed, run-first type of offense,” Marshall told the media Monday. “That’s the number one goal going in — to stop the run game.”
Coming into the campaign, Air Force was projected to be favored in every game on the schedule. That has been the case so far and the Falcons have faltered just once, falling 17-14 to Wyoming in a game in which they were missing five starters due to injuries and had almost 50 others that played despite being impacted by an illness that swept through the team.
Air Force has dominated on both sides of the ball in its three wins — beating Northern Iowa (48-17), Colorado (41-10) and Nevada (48-20). The Falcons have suffered just four losing seasons under head coach Troy Calhoun, who replaced the legendary Fisher DeBerry in 2007.
“Air Force is Air Force — always a good team. It’s not a surprise. They’ve got a veteran staff that knows what it’s doing,” Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo said.
Mike Thiessen has been on staff for 16 seasons, the last nine as offensive coordinator. Brian Knorr recently returned for his third stint as an Air Force assistant and has taken over as defensive coordinator.
“Troy and Mike do a good job with the offense; they’ve been together a long time so schematically they know who they are and what they want to get done,” Niumatalolo said. “Seeing Coach Knorr take over the defense, they haven’t missed a beat since last season.”
Air Force and Navy have traditionally met in early October, but last year’s contest was played on Sept. 11 to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States.
Navy laid an egg offensively, picking up just six first downs and managing a mere 68 total yards in a 23-3 loss. The defense did all it could to keep the Midshipmen in the game, limiting the Falcons to seven points for the better part of three quarters.
Things have not been nearly as close the last two times Navy traveled to Colorado Springs with Air Force winning 35-7 in 2018 and 40-7 in 2020.
“Obviously, that’s in the back of our minds. We know Air Force has gotten us the last few times,” Marshall said. “No matter what the spread of the game is, we’re still disappointed losing to Air Force. We use it as motivation, but we’re not going to dwell on it.”
Air Force famously has a plaque posted in the visiting locker room stating the elevation is 6,035 feet. There are signs plastered all over the walls kindly cautioning visiting players of the potentially life-threatening effects of physical exertion in high-altitude locations.
“We’re just giving them a heads-up,” Calhoun once said. “I think the players from schools located at sea level really need to be warned about the dangers of hypoxia.”
Niumatalolo has gone against Air Force every year he’s been involved with college football — as a player at Hawaii, as an assistant at Navy and UNLV and now for 15 seasons as head coach. He has tried all sorts of tactics to prepare the players for the altitude with the most common being that the team travels to Colorado on Thursday to have a couple days to get acclimated.
Beating Air Force is crucial for Navy to have any hopes of winning the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy; the Midshipmen last won it in 2019. Air Force last won the trophy in 2016.
“This game is everything. You can’t get the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy if you don’t beat Air Force,” Niumatalolo said. “Everyone in our program understands the significance of the Air Force game.”