When it comes to service academy football, the players and coaches usually understand what their counterparts are going through. For Navy and Air Force, which will meet today in Annapolis, there is even more shared experience than normal this year.
After two tumultuous days when the teams practiced for a game they weren't sure would be played because of the U.S. government shutdown, the Midshipmen and Falcons will face each other before an expected record sellout crowd at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium and a national television audience.
Not playing the game might have cost the Naval Academy's athletic department millions in lost revenue. Losing to the Falcons (1-4) would prevent Navy (2-1) from taking that first important step toward winning the Commander-in-Chief's trophy for the second straight year and the eighth time in 10 years.
The winner of the Navy-Air Force game has taken the coveted trophy every year since 2001. During that span, the road team has won six times. Three of the past four meetings have gone into overtime. Since 2003, the average margin of victory has been less than a touchdown.
"In any service academy game, any team can win at any moment," Navy wide receiver and co-captain Matt Aiken said. "It's always going to be a fight. It's always going to be a high-emotional game. That's something we have to take into account.
"They're going to be coming in here and going to be like little hornets, all over the place, out of control."
Coming off a deflating 19-7 defeat at Western Kentucky in which sophomore quarterback Keenan Reynolds left in the second quarter with a mild concussion, the Midshipmen know the feeling the Falcons have coming into this year's game.
"We were in that exact situation last year — we were struggling, and that game turned [the season] around," Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo said. "We throw the records out the window. It's Air Force, and it's going to be a tough battle, and we better be ready for a dogfight."
A year ago against Air Force, Reynolds entered the game after starter Trey Miller injured his ankle with Navy trailing by eight points in the fourth quarter. The Mids, who went into the game with a 1-3 record, won in overtime. The victory helped revive what turned out to be an 8-5 season.
"I wasn't really looking too far forward in the future; I was trying to figure out how I was going to make the next play work out or make the next drive finish," recalled Reynolds, who is expected to start today.
The Falcons appear to have found their quarterback before they face Navy. Sophomore Karson Roberts became the third quarterback to start this season for Air Force last week in a 45-42 loss at Nevada, finishing with 216 yards of total offense and three touchdowns (two rushing).
"They played really well. They probably should have beaten Nevada," Niumatalolo said. "I was very impressed [with] what they did with their third-string quarterback. We're going to have our hands full. For us to think any differently would be crazy. It's Air Force."
Roberts, a player with a game similar to Reynolds', took over after sophomore Jaleel Awini was suspended by the academy. Air Force coach Troy Calhoun was typically sparse in his praise of Roberts, who entered the season third on the depth chart, saying only that he did "some good things."
The same can't be said for Navy's backup, junior John Hendrick. After Reynolds was forced to the sideline following what appeared to be a helmet-to-helmet hit by Western Kentucky linebacker Andrew Jackson last week, Navy's triple-option became one-dimensional.
Niumatalolo said Thursday that it wasn't all Hendrick's fault. He had not practiced much the previous week because a shoulder injury suffered during a 51-7 blowout of Delaware, or even before the season opener
"I don't want to use the term 'perfect storm,' but it was the worst-case scenario for us," Niumatalolo said Thursday. "If it had been John going into the Indiana game when he had gotten a ton of reps because Keenan was hurt [before the season opener], we feel it would be a totally different story."
On Hendrick's first play from scrimmage, a fourth-and-1 from the Western Kentucky 25-yard line, he was stopped short after trying to back across the line. He later missed two open receivers deep on a play-action pass and then was intercepted.
Most of the plays offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper called — or the type Hendrick ran — were either pass plays or handoffs to the fullback.
"I'm comfortable running [the triple-option], but it's always a different deal when you go from practice and translate that into a game," Hendrick said. "There's a lot of things that you have to learn as a player. I felt like I learned a lot on Saturday, and if I come in a game and the game is on the line, I'll know how to handle it."
Air Force (1-4) at Navy (2-1)
Time: Saturday, 11:30 a.m.
Site: Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium
Radio: 1090 AM, 1430 AM
Series: Air Force leads, 27-18
Last meeting: Navy won, 28-21, in overtime in Colorado Springs on Oct. 6, 2012
Navy offense vs. Air Force defense: After averaging 46 points and more than 500 yards over the first two games — victories over Indiana and Delaware — the Midshipmen started well but slumped badly when starting quarterback Keenan Reynolds was knocked out in the second quarter of last week's loss at Western Kentucky. Reynolds, who came off the bench to lead Navy to an overtime victory last year in Colorado Springs, is expected to play, as are a full allotment of slotbacks. Four of them — DeBrandon Sanders, Geoffrey Whiteside, Marcus Thomas and Darius Staten — are averaging between 9.4 yards and 11.8 yards per carry. While Reynolds leads the team in rushing with 53 carries for 259 yards and three TDs, the sophomore is also a threat to pass (14 of 21 for 324 and two TDs). Of Air Force's 11 new starters, seven are on defense. Junior linebacker Joey Nichol leads the Falcons with 53 tackles, 4.5 for loss. Air Force has shown its collective inexperience on defense and is ranked 123rd in third down defense (66.7 percent surrendered) 121st in total defense (526.2 yards), 118th in pass efficiency and 106th in rushing defense (212.4). If Reynolds stays upright, Navy should roll.
Navy defense vs. Air Force offense: The Midshipmen struggled last week to contain Western Kentucky's Antonio Andrews. While Andrews reportedly committed orally to the Falcons out of high school, there is nobody on Air Force's current roster who resembles him. The biggest concern this week for Navy will be relatively new quarterback Karson Roberts, who made his first career start in the Falcons' 45-42 loss at Nevada last week. The sophomore rushed 23 times for 161 yards and two TDs, including a 60-yard run, while also connecting on five of 10 passes for 55 yards and a touchdown. Perennially one of the top rushing teams in the country, the Falcons are currently eighth (296 yards a game). Linebackers Cody Peterson and D.J. Sargenti continue to lead the Midshipmen in tackles (26 and 24, respectively), but freshman William Tuider started to make some plays after coming in for Chris Johnson last week. As long as the Midshipmen don't let Air Force's new quarterback do what Reynolds did to the Falcons last year, Navy should win.