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‘It’s always a slugfest’: Coaches, players say disparity in records means little in Army-Navy football game

Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo, left, and Army counterpart Jeff Monken agree the records mean nothing going into next Saturday's service academy showdown at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.
Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo, left, and Army counterpart Jeff Monken agree the records mean nothing going into next Saturday's service academy showdown at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. (Matt Slocum/AP)

Army will no doubt be favored to beat archrival Navy when oddsmakers release the initial betting line Sunday.

On paper, that makes perfect sense. The Black Knights boast an 8-3 record with two of the losses coming to Power Five programs Wake Forest and Wisconsin. Meanwhile, the Midshipmen have the exact opposite record of 3-8 after playing a brutally difficult schedule to date.

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Air Force is the lone common opponent and that criteria also favors the West Point contingent. Army beat Air Force, 21-14, in overtime, while Navy lost to the youngest of the three major service academies, 23-3.

Army head coach Jeff Monken will hear nothing of such talk. Navy is every bit as formidable this season as it was in 2019 when it went 11-2, he argued.

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“I fully expect this is going to be the toughest game we play all year. It always is,” Monken said. “Nobody is going to give Army more of a challenge than Navy. That’s just how it is, year-in and year-out. There’s new faces and new jersey numbers on both sides, but it’s always a slugfest.”

Navy has played the third-toughest schedule in the Football Bowl Subdivision based off multiple metrics, including opponent winning percentage (80-41, .661). The Midshipmen will wind up meeting 11 bowl-eligible opponents, most of any FBS program in the country.

Two of Navy’s opponents are still very much in contention for the College Football Playoff with Cincinnati currently ranked No. 4 and Notre Dame sitting at No. 6. The Midshipmen only lost 27-20 to the unbeaten Bearcats, whose average margin of victory was 24 points.

Navy also lost 28-20 to Houston (11-1), which will play Cincinnati in the American Athletic Conference championship game. Those were two of four defeats the Midshipmen suffered by a touchdown or less.

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“There’s no question Navy has played a very challenging schedule,” Monken acknowledged. “I look at the way they’ve stayed in games with good teams like Houston, SMU and Cincinnati … they play people tough.”

Monken will be coaching against Navy for the eighth time since arriving at Army West Point. He saw the rivalry from the other side while serving as an assistant for the Midshipmen from 2002 to 2007. He knows all about the intensity and emotion that are ingrained in this game.

Compared with Navy counterpart Ken Niumatalolo, Monken is a neophyte when it comes to this rivalry. Niumatalolo will be participating in his 24th Army-Navy game, including 14th as head coach.

In 2015, record-setting quarterback Keenan Reynolds led Navy to an 11-2 record capped by a victory over Pittsburgh in the Military Bowl. However, an Army team that finished 2-10 almost pulled a shocking upset at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia.

The Black Knights drove deep into enemy territory and seemed poise to score the game-winning touchdown before quarterback Chris Carter lost a fumble and the Midshipmen escaped with 21-17 victory that year.

“It’s going to be a slugfest. I’ve been in this game 23 times and it’s always a slugfest,” Niumatalolo said. “One thing I’ve learned about this game is that nothing prior means anything.”

That 2015 victory extended Navy’s record winning streak in the series to 14 games. Army finally put an end to that ignominious skid the following year with a 21-17 victory over Navy at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore and has won four of the past five.

Army has played a schedule that ranks at the bottom of the 130-team Football Bowl Subdivision as it featured a pair of struggling independent programs in Connecticut (1-11) and Massachusetts (1-11) along with a woeful Football Championship Subdivision squad in Bucknell (1-10). The Black Knights’ other games came against Georgia State of the Sun Belt Conference, Western Kentucky of Conference USA along with Miami-Ohio and Ball State of the Mid-American Conference.

Army Navy game logo 2021
Army Navy game logo 2021 (Courtesy Photo)

Army fell 70-56 in a wild shootout to Wake Forest, which is playing Pittsburgh in the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game. Wisconsin, which finished second in the West Division of the Big Ten Conference, went down to the wire before pulling out a 20-14 victory over Army.

Those were part of a three-game losing streak for Army, which was also beaten by Ball State, 26-18. Ultimately, this is the fifth time in the last six seasons the Black Knights have posted a winning season and earned a bowl berth.

Beating Navy would enable Army to claim the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy for the second straight season and fourth time since 2017.

Meanwhile, Navy will finish with a losing record and miss the postseason for the third time in the last four seasons. It’s about pride at this point for the Midshipmen, who would love to prevent the Black Knights from winning the CIC Trophy.

Navy narrowly lost 38-35 to East Carolina (7-5) on Senior Day in Annapolis then beat Temple 38-14 last Saturday in Philadelphia. Monken considers those results along with a 20-17 defeat of Tulsa on Oct. 29 and the narrow loss to Cincy on Oct. 23 and is worried.

“Navy is playing its best football right now, that’s for sure. I’m not surprised [the Midshipmen] have steadily improved because I know what Kenny has built there. I know the culture he’s created within that program,” Monken said. “That is a well-coached team. Kenny and Ivin Jasper do a great job with the offense; Brian Newberry does a great job with the defense.”

Monken brought his four senior captains to the Army-Navy press conference at MetLife Stadium this past Wednesday and they were all well-versed in the standard talking points. Safety Cedrick Cunningham was already shaking his head when the disparity in records was pointed out.

“Records never matter in this game. Both teams know each other so well and it’s just such an intense rivalry that records never matter in this game. We’ll treat them the same as if they were 11-0,” Cunningham said.

“It all about who plays the best that day. It comes down to toughness along with executing the details of your assignment. You have to be on point with your fundamentals each and every play.”

Nose guard Nolan Cockrill was also complimentary of Navy and noted the film shows an opponent to be concerned with.

“Navy is a talented team that is well-coached and plays hard. We expect a real battle,” Cockrill said. “It’s going to get great preparation on our part to get the job done.”

ARMY VS. NAVY

MetLife Stadium, East Rutherford, N.J.

Dec. 11, 3 p.m.

TV: Chs. 13, 9 Radio: 1430 AM

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