Navy quarterback Ricky Dobbs had just finished his interview obligations during Army-Navy media day when he spotted Army linebacker Stephen Anderson getting ready to sit down for lunch at his assigned table. The senior co-captain made it a point to embrace his adversary from West Point, then spoke glowingly about the rivalry and how humbled he was to be a part of this most meaningful of games for the final time.
The mutual admiration between the two was one of many such instances on Wednesday, when players, coaches and top officials from both service academies gathered at Lincoln Financial Field to commence the buildup for the 111th Army-Navy game, which this season has a decidedly different complexion from previous years.
For the first time since 1996, both service academies enter the game eligible for a bowl, meaning the Midshipmen might have a tougher time with the Black Knights than in recent meetings. Navy has won eight straight over Army, a series record.
"I know come Saturday, Dec. 11, everybody's going to be amped," said Dobbs, who is part of a senior class that has won the past three games against Army by a combined score of 89-6.
Navy (8-3) did not give up a touchdown to Army in any of those games, including last year's 17-3 triumph at Lincoln Financial Field that featured 113 yards rushing and one touchdown by Dobbs. The Midshipmen are bidding to become the first Navy team to hold Army without a touchdown for four straight years. No Navy or Army team has accomplished that against the other.
Establishing precedents, however, is nothing new for Dobbs, who with fellow senior co-captain and safety Wyatt Middleton and Army seniors Patrick Mealy and Anderson received honorary proclamations from Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter at the post-interview luncheon. Among Dobbs' notable achievements are the NCAA record for most rushing touchdowns by a quarterback in consecutive seasons (40) and becoming Navy's all-time leader in points with 290.
Middleton is in line to start his 47th straight game, the longest active streak by a Navy player. He is tied for sixth in the country in fumble recoveries per game and is part of a unit that ranks 17th in turnover margin (plus-0.91 per game) and 45th in scoring defense (22.8 points per game). His leadership has been invaluable in stabilizing a secondary that has gone most of the season without starting safety Emmett Merchant, who suffered a season-ending concussion Sept. 11 in a 13-7 victory over Georgia Southern.
"Once Army-Navy week gets here, I usually get a good feeling," Middleton said. "You have a lot of things going on … back at school, a lot of festivities going on. It's Army week, so a lot of people are doing pranks, different things like that. It's exciting, but when Thursday comes around, that's when you really got to start just focusing on the game and nothing but the game."
With the resurgence of the Army program under second-year coach Rich Ellerson, the Black Knights have the attention of Navy players. Army (6-5) is ranked 10th nationally with 260.3 yards rushing per game. The defense is ranked 26th, yielding 332.6 yards per game. Senior defensive end Josh McNary, Army's all-time leader in both categories, has 91/2 sacks and 12 tackles for a loss this season.
"This is my last chance to have an academy victory," said Anderson, a native of Ijamsville who played high school football at Damascus. "I've been 0 for my three years here, another loss against Air Force this season, so I've never experienced an academy victory. As much as it would have been nice to beat Air Force, you can't do anything about that now. You've got this chance against Navy. You've got an opportunity, and you've got to seize an opportunity that's given to you."