Army-Navy is 'more than a game' for each side

For most of the past eight seasons, the Army-Navy game seemed to carry more significance for the Black Knights than for the Midshipmen. Except for last year's game in Philadelphia, when both teams had winning records and post-season plans, this traditional end-of-season matchup was Army's bowl game.

When Navy (4-7) plays Army (3-8) at FedEx Field in Landover Saturday, it will mark the first time since 2002 the Midshipmen will be playing their last game of the season.

It also means Navy's 33 seniors will be playing their last college game and for nearly all of them, the last football games of their careers, as it has been for all but a few Black Knights in recent seasons.

Navy has always respected Army more than any other opponent, in particular Air Force, but what the Midshipmen have endured this season — including a six-game losing streak — has made them relate even more to their future brothers in arms.

"I can feel their pain," Navy senior fullback and co-captain Alexander Teich said. "I think that (not having a bowl game to play in) will make this year's game even more emotional."

Fourth-year Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo isn't sure it can get any more emotional than it has been in the past.

"Whether we come in here 9-3 or 4-7 or whatever, the game is always a big game," Niumatalolo said. "I think there's some significance in the fact that it's the last game for our seniors. The Army-Navy for me is always the most significant game."

After a difficult season that saw Navy lose five games by three points or less, the Midshipmen believe a victory over their most storied rival will be a salve to the wounds collecting over the past three months.

"This can make everything feel a lot better," Teich said. "It's not been the season that we all wanted or expected, but winning here could definitely salvage a lot of that."

As for beating the Black Knights, something Navy has done the past nine years, Teich said, "You don't want that ball to drop when it's in your hands. There are some goals we set this year that we didn't accomplish, but this is still the main goal that we start off with and that's 'Beat Army.' "

It also marks the first time in the 112 meetings that the game will be played near or in Washington, D.C.

"Whether we're playing here, which is a great venue to play, or in Philadelphia or if we were playing them in a parking lot, it's still Army, it's still your rival," Niumatalolo said. "I think the significance of the game has always been high. Playing in the nation's capital is special."

Senior defensive end and co-captain Jabaree Tuani said he didn't understand the significance of the Army-Navy game when he first got to Annapolis four years ago. Since he didn't go to the Naval Academy's prep school, the feeling hadn't quite been imbedded in him.

Even after the Midshipmen trounced the Black Knights, 34-0, his freshman year, Tuani said he returned for his sophomore year without the proper level of respect.

"I was like, 'Army who?' " Tuani recalled. "It was like, we're not playing Army, it's time to practice.' But now I know how stressful is going to be, the coaches are going to work you to the core because you don't want to be on the other end. To me, this is more than a game."

Teich admitted that because the Midshipmen failed to reach their goal of winning back the Commander in Chief's Trophy from Air Force after losing it last season for the first time since 2003, there is some " a little added pressure" against Army.

"But the pressure is there every week," Teich said. "We've been having big games since Air Force on, the pressure built after we lost. When we won finally two straight games, the pressure got even bigger. This is as big as it gets."

If anything, Navy can relate to what Army has through for much of the past decade. Except for last season, when the Black Knights was headed to the Armed Forces Bowl, the game against the Midshipmen represented their last chance to play a game that year.

Now Navy is in the same situation.

"I think that both teams are not going on to a bowl game this year, makes this game a little more important than the last few times the teams have played," said Army senior captain and linebacker Andrew Rodriguez.

Said Teich, "They are going to be hungry, this is a team that's hungry, too."

As he watched practice Monday in Annapolis, athletic director Chet Gladchuk could sense that. The drills were a little sharper than they had been during the last few weeks of the regular season. There seemed to be a renewed sense of purpose.

"This is the way it was before all the bowl games," said Gladchuk, who has been at Navy since 2001. "This is the way Army-Navy should be."


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