PHILADELPHIA – All the hype begins about two weeks beforehand, officially kicking off this year with the Army-Navy media event and luncheon held at Lincoln Financial Field on Nov. 28.
From that day forward there are hundreds of stories written or broadcast by media outlets all over the country.
Excitement reaches a fevered pitch during game week with pep rallies on both campuses and a wide variety of special events here in Philadelphia, which will be hosting the Army-Navy football game for the 88th time.
The Midshipmen and Black Knights arrived at their respective team hotels on Thursday night and conducted walk-through practices at Lincoln Financial Field on Friday afternoon.
A year’s worth of anticipation and build-up culminates on Saturday at precisely 3:10 p.m. when the 119th Army-Navy football game kicks off in front of a frenzied sellout crowd that will include the entire Corps of Cadets, Brigade of Midshipmen and President Donald Trump.
By that point, Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo will have told his team a hundred times that “this game is won between the white lines.” Army head coach Jeff Monken will have repeatedly informed his troops that “this game will not be won on emotion; it will be won with execution.”
No. 23 Army (9-2) enters this annual showdown ranked in the Associated Press poll for the first time since 1996 and is set to play Houston in the Armed Forces Bowl. A great season filled with tremendous accomplishments will seem hollow if the Black Knights cannot beat the Midshipmen.
“It’s the pinnacle of our season,” Monken said. “It’s the most important game of the year. It’s the biggest game of the year. There are very few rivalries that you can get away with talking about 365 days of the year. But for 365 days of the year at both academies, this rivalry is talked about. We have signs up. It’s a goal of ours and we are looking forward to the game.”
Meanwhile, Navy (3-9) has suffered through its worst season since 2002 and did not earn a bowl berth for just the second time in 16 years. The Midshipmen suddenly find themselves in the unenviable position of having to salvage a dismal campaign by upsetting their archrival.
“As tough as this season has been, you can tell there is a different look in their eyes. They’re excited about the opportunity,” Niumatalolo said. “One game changes everything. That’s the way we’re looking at it. One win can change the whole season.”
Army can claim the coveted Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy for the second consecutive season with a win on Saturday. A loss would mean the Black Knights merely retain the trophy, a meaningless achievement that simply saves on shipping costs.
“Make no mistake, we want to be the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy champions again because that has not been done in a long time at West Point,” said Army linebacker and tri-captain Cole Christiansen.
Actually, Army has never won the CIC Trophy two years in a row and has only done so a total of six times since the series was established in 1972.
As soon as hostilities commence in frigid Philadelphia, the 68,625 fans in the stands and the millions watching on television will realize quickly this service academy showdown is a bare-knuckle fist fight.
Former Navy head coach Paul Johnson, whose presence looms large over this rivalry now that two of his disciples stride the opposing sidelines, routinely said the Army-Navy game is “played inside a phone booth.”
That is because the majority of offensive plays will take place between the tackles. Army and Navy know how to defend the triple-option better than any other team in the country and the inevitable result is a rock’em, sock’em affair in which yards are very hard to come by.
“There is no option factor in this game. Army is very well-coached defensively and always plays hard,” Navy offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper said. “We have to be smart and find a way to execute in order to drive the field. There are not going to be many big plays. You have to take whatever they give you and just grind it.”
Last season’s meeting, which Army won 14-13 after Navy kicker Bennett Moehring barely missed a 48-yard field goal as time expired, provides a perfect example. Army had eight possessions and ran 50 plays while Navy had seven possessions and ran 48 plays. The Midshipmen amassed 296 total yards while the Black Knights finished with 241.
“It’s going to be a physical game. They’re a physical team, we’re a physical team. They run the ball, we run the ball. They possess the ball, we possess the ball,” Niumatalolo said. “The only reason this game lasts long is because of the television commercials.”
Monken has Army operating its version of option offense at an extremely high level this season. Quarterback Kelvin Hopkins has directed an attack that ranks second nationally in rushing offense with 303 yards per game. The Black Knights do most of their damage inside with fullback Darnell Woolfolk (823 yards) and Hopkins (783 yards) leading the way.
“They’ve kind of evolved offensively. I think the power running game, with option elements mixed in, really suits them,” Niumatalolo said. “I think the 2018 version of Army football has been four years in the making. I’ve been impressed with watching how Monk has evolved since he’s been at Army.”
Monken was forced to alter the offense after Army committed a whopping 42 turnovers during his first two seasons at the helm. He and offensive coordinator Brent Davis dramatically reduced the pitch element of the triple-option and the Black Knights have committed just seven turnovers (four fumbles, three interceptions) this season.
“They’re not pitching the ball as much, but they’re getting the ball to the slots in different ways. They have the toss play, which is fairly safe. They’ll throw the ball out in the flat to try to get them in one-on-one situations,” Navy defensive coordinator Dale Pehrson said. “They’re finding ways to get the ball on the edge, but are mostly running the quarterback and the fullback between the tackles.”
Army leads the Football Bowl Subdivision in time of possession, hogging the ball for more than 39 minutes per game. That statistic is the by-product of the Black Knights ranking No. 1 nationally in both third down (100-for-175) and fourth down (30-33) conversion percentage.
“Army has been very efficient and done a good job of staying ahead of the sticks. They’ll get three yards on first down and the defense will be like ‘Yes, we stopped them.’ Whenever that happens, Army is right on track where they want to be,” Niumatalolo said.
Pehrson said Navy’s defense needs to show up strong on first and second down in order to keep Army out of manageable third down situations. A few tackles for loss would be huge for the Midshipmen.
“They’re satisfied with three yards on every run and will regularly go for it on fourth down. They don’t turn the ball over, are chewing up the clock and shortening the game,” Pehrson said.
Senior center Bryce Holland, who checks in at 6-foot-2 and 295 pounds, is the key player up front for Army and teams with guards Jaxson Deaton (6-4, 310) and Petyon Reeder (6-6, 290) to control the interior. Junior nose guard Jackson Pittman (6-3, 309) must do a credible job of holding the point of attack for Navy.
“I think their offensive line comes off the ball low and hard. It’s a real tough group and the center, in particular, is a very good player,” Pehrson said. “We’ve got to match their physicality across the board. We need to play with low pads and need to find a way to knock them back.”
ARMY PLAYS PRESS DEFENSE
Navy has been forced to work for every yard it has gained against Army during the previous four meetings. The Midshipmen were limited to 282 and 201 total yards in the 2014 and 2016 meetings.
Army will put nine or 10 defenders in the box and likes to crowd the line of scrimmage whenever it goes against Navy. Look for Christiansen and fellow inside linebacker James Nachtigal to shoot the gaps in an attempt to cause disruption.
“They’re not going to sit back and let you operate. They are going to push and press you. It’s like a full-court press in basketball,” Jasper said. “We have to make sure we’re disciplined and deal with their pressure.”
Navy often employs its tight formation with the receivers lined up just outside the tackle box when playing Army. As a result, the perimeter element of the triple-option is not as great a factor.
“Both teams understand what the other is trying to do, where we’re trying to get the ball. If a defense doesn’t want the ball to go outside they can do things to make it stay inside,” Jasper said. “Regardless of what they do, we have to find ways to get the ball out on the perimeter. It comes down to a Chess match and adjusting to what the defense does.”
Zach Abey will make his second career start at quarterback for Navy, which ranks third nationally in rushing offense (288.5 yards), but is averaging just 26.3 points (No. 88 in FBS). The Midshipmen faced a 10-man front against Tulane on Nov. 24 and went almost exclusively to the air during the second half.
Abey was effective throwing the ball that day and finished with a career-high 204 passing yards. Army will dare Navy to throw as well, but a few completed passes will not change the strategy of defensive coordinator Jay Bateman.
“Going into any game you want to complete a couple play-action passes in order to get the defense to back up. Army is not going to back off,” Jasper said. “They’re going to bring pressure all game. They’re deal is: If you can get it off before we get there you might have something, but if get a sack you are now in second-and-20.”
Speedster Malcolm Perry started at quarterback in last year’s Army-Navy game and rushed for 250 yards and a touchdown while operating out of shotgun formation and running behind a zone blocking scheme. Perry is now playing slotback and Jasper needs to dial up some plays that give Navy’s most dynamic runner a chance to break a long gain.
More than anything, Navy needs to eliminate the penalties, mental mistakes and negative plays that have derailed the offense so often this season.
“We’ve got to be totally on point. We’ve got to be consistent offensively. We have not executed for the entirety of a game so far this season. We know we are capable of doing it. What better time to start than this game,” Niumatalolo said.
After shattering the series record by beating Army in 14 straight meetings, Navy has suddenly dropped two in a row to the archrival. Despite the disappointing season that has produced just three wins, Niumatalolo believes his ballclub has the resolve to muster a great effort on Saturday.
“What I like best about our team is that we’ve been through everything so we are battle-tested,” Niumatalolo said. “Our guys have been so resilient. They’ve been knocked down and gotten up so many times. I am confident are guys are going to come out on Saturday and give Army a great battle.”