Army-Navy rivalry rises up for the 113th time
PHILADELPHIA — At a recent luncheon to promote Saturday's Army-Navy game, Army coach Rich Elllerson gestured toward the 170-pound Commander-in-Chief's Trophy, topped by three silver footballs that resemble Super Bowl trophies.
"We didn't win much, but we won just enough to keep that on the table," Ellerson said from the podium.
The trophy goes annually to the winner of the three-way military academy football series between Army, Navy and Air Force.
Army and Navy each beat Air Force this season. As a result, for the first time since 2005, the Army-Navy game will decide who takes home the trophy. The winners also will get a trip to the White House for President Barack Obama's formal presentation of the trophy, first awarded in 1972 by President Richard Nixon.
"It's the No. 1 goal for our program to try and get the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy. … That's our No. 1 goal every year," says coach Ken Niumatololo of Navy, which won the trophy seven consecutive years before surrendering it to Air Force the past two seasons.
Not that they'll need anything special to get wound up about playing each other for the 113th time.
Army is 2-9. Navy is 7-4 and will play Dec. 27 against Arizona State in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl in San Francisco. Navy has beaten Army 10 times in a row.
Never mind that.
"Whether both of us were 11-0 coming into this game or both of us were 0-11, it doesn't really matter," says Niumatololo.
There are many lists ranking the best rivalries in college football. You can debate the likes of Alabama-Auburn, Ohio State-Michigan and Oklahoma-Texas.
And there's Army-Navy.
"I won't say it's the biggest rivalry. I'd say it's a unique rivalry," says Navy senior linebacker Brye French of Deatsville, Ala., headed to the Marine Corps as a ground officer after graduation.
"It's not just people from a state or a college watching. There are going to be people all across the country, those deployed (in the military) and those stationed in distant places."
French said he has read a book called The All Americans", in which author Lars Anderson tells the stories of players from both sides in the Army-Navy game played Nov. 29, 1941. They faced tests ahead with the outbreak of World War II.
"They played the game, and eight days later, bam, Pearl Harbor happens," French says. "They're brothers in arms."
Saturday, they will be foes.
This is Ellerson's fourth season at Army. In 2010, he led the Black Knights to a 7-6 season and their first bowl win since 1985. This season's wins have come against Boston College (34-31) and Air Force (41-21). But Army, with its triple option led by fourth-year starting quarterback Trent Steelman, tops FBS in rushing (369.82 yards a game).
Navy, in its fifth season under Niumatalolo, got thumped in its first two games by Notre Dame (50-10 in Ireland) and Penn State (34-7).
The Midshipmen found a spark in their fifth game when freshman quarterback Keenan Reynolds came off the bench to rally them to a 28-21 overtime win at Air Force and earn the starting job in Navy's triple-option. Navy is sixth in the FBS in rushing (285.45 yards a game). Reynolds' passing is an extra dimension.
Niumatalolo says his team isn't thinking about its 10-game winning streak against Army.
"All the guys in the past, I's a great accomplishment on their part. But for our team … we really don't even talk about it,'' he says.
Army knows the count.
"We expect to win," says Ellerson. " … We know how hard it is to win a football game, period, much less against a team that is as accomplished as Navy. … We've got a plan, and we expect to be successful.''
When President Obama presented the 2011 Commander-in-Chief's Trophy to Air Force in April, he kidded about its size.
"Now, this trophy, which by the way is the biggest trophy — I give a lot of these out. … This is the monster of all trophies here," said the president.
Army senior linebacker Nate Combs of New Albany, Ind., would love to carry it back to West Point, N.Y.
"This being my last game probably ever to put the pads on just makes it that more special, and especially against Navy," Combs says.
"It would be great for the program, too. Everybody's itching at the bit to know if this is the year. I'm ready to do it, and I know the senior class can handle it, as well at the Army team."
Go Army. Go Navy.