Army, Navy try to ignore past results as they prep for 114th meeting
A U.S. Navy midshipman serving as the quarterback with the U.S. Naval Academy football team, the Midshipmen, runs with the ball during the 113th Army vs. Navy football game at the Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, Pa., on Dec. 8, 2012.
The Baltimore Sun
The two programs share a 113-game history and a common longterm goal — protecting the nation's security — but that is where the current football teams from Army and Navy diverge in distinctly different directions.
If Navy's 11-game winning streak over its service academy rival is something coach Ken Niumatalolo and his Midshipmen don't talk about much, it has become an a 170-pound albatross in the form of the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy for the Black Knights.
"Because we haven't won in a while, it does have some kind of effect on us, but we leave the management of the outside voices to the coaches," Army defensive end Bobby Kough said this week. "We focus on the Xs and Os and what we can do on the field to control that."
The current Midshipmen, much like their brethren from the past decade, don't want to see this coveted prize slip through their collective grasp when Navy (7-4) plays Army (3-8) Saturday at Philadelphia's Lincoln Financial Field.
Combined with Navy's 28-10 win over Air Force in Annpolis on Oct. 5 and Army's 42-28 loss at Air Force on Nov. 2, a 12th straight Navy victory will give the Midshipmen the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy for the second straight year and the ninth time in 11 seasons.
"I couldn't imagine losing to those guys. I don't want to know that feeling," Navy senior linebacker and co-captain Cody Peterson said after practice Wednesday.
It nearly happened last year, but after an 8-yard go-ahead touchdown run by Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds with 4:41 remaining gave the Midshipmen the lead, a late fumble by Army fullback Larry Dixon at the Navy 14-yard line prevented the Black Knights from ending the streak.
Peterson said that the final minutes of last year's 17-13 victory, secured when nose tackle Barry Dabney recovered Dixon's fumble, was "way too close for comfort, but somehow we've found a way to finish for the last 11 years.
"It's just a testament to our coaches and how they get us ready."
Part of the preparation for Navy is trying to keep the magnitude of the game out of the minds of the players, which is difficult, given the attention throughout the country.
Niumatalolo does his best to downplay his team's winning streak.
"I never talk about it, because none of those other 11 games has any bearing on the game this Saturday. Our approach has always been [to] prepare for this game," Niumatalolo said. "There's so much stuff that happens outside.
"I don't know how many helicopters are going to fly over or what color the balloons are going to be or what time the march-on happens. My thing is just make sure we're prepared between the white lines and know exactly to do when the ball is kicked off."
Said Reynolds: "New year, new teams, can't really get concerned with the past years because those aren't the teams that are playing. We've just got to focus on the now. Like I've said many times and Coach has said many times, 'Looking in the rear-view [mirror] can get you beat.'"
Army is coming into this year's game with several key players out with injuries. Slotback Raymond Maples, a two-time 1,000-yard rusher, has been out most of the season with a groin injury. Dixon broke his wrist and is also not expected play. Only one defensive player, safety Shaquille Tolbert, has suited up for all 11 games.
"I do feel that we've had way too much," Army coach Rich Ellerson said of his team's injuries. "Good football teams don't have that many players coming in and out of the lineup. They just don't."
While Navy has five players headed for ACL surgery after the season and had another, safety Chris Ferguson, retire in mid-season after suffering a series of concucssions, the Midshipmen have used the three weeks since their last game to get healthier.
Sophomore nose tackle Bernie Sarra, who suffered a displaced fracture in his leg against Notre Dame in early November, will be back. So will junior fullback Noah Copeland, who has missed the past four games, and sophomore fullback Chris Swain, who has missed three of the past four.
"I know we've been hurt, but in sports nobody cares if somebody gets hurt, the next guy has to step up," Niumatalolo said. "Football is a physical game. People get hurt. It's part of the deal, unfortunately, so I've been grateful that when guys here have been hurt other guys have stepped up."
Despite being nearly a two-touchdown favorite this week, Navy's chance for a blowout victory could be impacted by what is expected to be a rain-soaked (and possibly snow-covered) field.
And despite the difference in the records the past few years, Army has been steadily closing the gap in this game since Navy won 37-3 in Paul Johnson's last season in 2007 and 34-0 in Niumatalolo's first in 2008.
"We were arguably the better team last year, but we came up short because of some mistakes and mental errors on our part," Kough said. "It's going to be a fight. It comes down to who makes the fewest mistakes and who comes prepared."
Niumatalolo has been on the losing end in this game, in three of four years as an assistant from 1995 through 1998 under Charlie Weatherbie as well as the first season under Johnson in 2001. The Midshipmen won the next year, finishing a 2-10 season with a 58-12 win over Army at Giants Stadium, to start the current streak.
"It must be tough to lose to your rival, so I know they're going to come to battle and give everything they've got. That's who they are," Niumatalolo said. "West Point peeople are tough people. Coach Ellerson is a tough sucker, and I know those players are tough kids. I know they're not going to look at the record, and they're to come ready to go."