Let the hype begin.
For the next two weeks, the energy, excitement, intensity and passion will build for the 123rd Army-Navy game, set for Dec. 10 at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia.
Navy football began its ramp-up to “America’s Game” immediately after upsetting Central Florida on Nov. 19. The Midshipmen enjoyed just their second bye week of the season and coach Ken Niumatalolo gave the players time off from organized team activities.
Players worked out on their own Monday through Wednesday before heading home to spend Thanksgiving weekend with their families. Niumatalolo let the assistants and support staff leave town as well if they wanted, saying it was a good opportunity for everyone involved with the program to “recharge the batteries.”
Navy (4-7) just completed a brutal stretch that featured road games against American Athletic Conference heavyweights Cincinnati and UCF sandwiched around a neutral site meeting with Notre Dame. The Midshipmen fared better than expected, playing the Bearcats (20-10) and Fighting Irish (35-32) tough before knocking off the Knights (17-14).
“The first order of business is rest and recovery, just try to get healed up,” Niumatalolo said. “Those last three games were very physical and our guys are pretty banged up right now.”
This marks the first time since 2013 that Navy had three weeks between Army-Navy and its previous game. Normally, the break is two weeks, although the Midshipmen had just one week to prepare for the archrival in 2016 and 2020 — the former due to playing in the American Athletic Conference championship game, the latter as a result of a makeup game caused by a COVID cancellation.
Army (5-6) is coming off consecutive victories over Connecticut and Massachusetts, two of the lowest-rated programs in the Football Bowl Subdivision. The Black Knights have also beaten a pair of Football Championship Subdivision schools in Villanova and Colgate.
Army must beat Navy to become bowl eligible for the sixth time in the last seven seasons. Meanwhile, Navy is looking to surpass its win total of last season.
The Midshipmen won last season, 17-13, and have won two of the last three in the series after the Black Knights took three in a row from 2016-18. Air Force beat both Army (13-7) and Navy (13-10) this season to capture the coveted Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy.
Here are three storylines to look for during the 2022 Army-Navy game.
Strength versus strength
Army boasts the nation’s second-ranked rushing offense. Quarterback Tyhier Tyler has directed an attack that averages 304.4 yards per game on the ground. Navy ranks fourth in rushing defense. Nose guard Donald Berniard Jr. and tackle Clay Cromwell anchor a unit that is allowing only 85.6 yards.
Tyler has run for 601 yards to lead the Army version of triple-option offense. Bruising fullbacks Tyson Riley (255 pounds) and Jakobi Buchanan (260) have combined for 775 yards. Sophomore slotback Tyrell Robinson (325 yards) is the primary perimeter threat.
Army relies heavily on the interior running game with the quarterbacks and fullbacks getting the bulk of carries. Backup quarterback Jemell Jones is the team’s fourth-leading rusher and could see action against Navy.
While the down linemen have done the dirty work, Navy’s linebacker corps has been outstanding in terms of pursuit and tackling. Nicholas Straw has done a good job of setting the edge, while fellow senior outside linebacker John Marshall has been a playmaker.
Marshall ranks fourth nationally in tackles for loss (18 ½) and fifth in sacks (10 ½). The Highland resident leads the Midshipmen with 88 total tackles. Inside linebacker Colin Ramos is second with 71 tackles, while safeties Rayuan Lane (67) and Eavan Gibbons (49) have provided superb run support.
Navy defensive coordinator Brian Newberry said Army is employing more shifting than past seasons in order to show different formations. Newberry intends to keep things simple and straightforward.
“Probably the mistake I made against Air Force was being a bit too complicated with the plan,” he said. “The most important thing is to allow our players to go out and play fast and not have to think a whole lot.”
Navy quarterback Xavier Arline will make his second start against Army. As a plebe in 2020, he was thrust into a pressure-packed situation as the game was played at Michie Stadium in West Point due to the pandemic. Arline acquitted himself well in a hostile atmosphere.
Arline has already talked about having “unfinished business” versus the Black Knights. The 5-foot-9 junior will be making his fourth straight start since replacing Tai Lavatai, who suffered a season-ending knee injury.
Navy’s coaching staff put together a special package of plays for Arline going into last year’s game against Army. However, the youngster suffered a hamstring injury while picking up a first down on his first carry and did not return.
Niumatalolo has praised the performance of Arline as orchestrator of the triple-option offense. The Midshipmen moved the ball effectively against two tough defenses in Notre Dame and Central Florida.
Arline has beaten Army as a member of the Navy lacrosse team, totaling two goals and two assists to spark a 12-11 overtime victory last season at Michie Stadium.
Niumatalolo and Army head coach Jeff Monken go way back, having served together as graduate assistants at Hawaii when their mentor Paul Johnson was offensive coordinator there.
Niumatalolo followed Johnson to Navy when he was hired as offensive coordinator under head coach Charlie Weatherbie. Monken rejoined Johnson when the triple-option guru was named coach at Georgia Southern.
When Johnson replaced Weatherbie as coach at Navy in 2001, Niumatalolo and Monken were part of his original staff. They worked together for six seasons in Annapolis before Johnson left for Georgia Tech and Monken went with him.
Niumatalolo’s 10 wins against Army are the most of any coach in the history of the game. Meanwhile, Monken owns a 4-4 record against Navy.
While Niumatalolo said he and Monken will always be as close as brothers, he acknowledged the friendship has been put “on hold” while they are on opposite sides of the greatest rivalry in sports.
Army vs. Navy
Lincoln Financial Field, Philadelphia
Saturday, Dec. 10, 3 p.m.
TV: Chs. 13, 9
Radio: 1430 AM
Line: Army by 3