Historic winning streak always a hot topic at Army-Navy press event
By BILL WAGNER | The Capital (Tribune News Service) | Published: December 7, 2016
Every year in advance of the Army-Navy game, players and head coaches from both service academies gather at the host stadium for a media event.
For at least the past decade, an unavoidable line of questioning from the print, radio and television reporters in attendance has been Navy's historic winning streak in the series.
It is the elephant in the room that no one on either side wants to discuss. Navy's representatives don't want to come off as gloating or reveling in having beaten Army 14 years in a row. As far as the West Point contingent is concerned, the streak is a non-factor.
"The streak is imaginary as far as the players on this team are concerned," Army linebacker and co-captain Andrew King said during Tuesday's gathering at M&T Bank Stadium. "This 2016 Army team has not faced the 2016 Navy team. We are both 0-0 going into this game."
However, in the next breath, King acknowledges how important it is for Army to finally beat Navy on the football field.
"It would definitely mean a lot for this program and for the institution as a whole. That's what Army and Navy graduates talk about. They talk about whether or not you beat Navy or what was your record against Army," King said.
It all started way back in 2002, Paul Johnson's first year as head coach at Navy. The Midshipmen suffered through a dismal 2-10 campaign, but it ended on a positive note thanks to a 58-12 rout of the Black Knights that saw quarterback Craig Candeto account for seven touchdowns.
Army has not found a way to knock off Navy ever since, although there have been several close calls. In 2012, the Midshipmen escaped with a 17-13 win that ended with fullback Larry Dixon losing a fumble with the Black Knights just 14 yards away from scoring the winning touchdown.
In 2014, the last time the rivalry was held at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore, Navy overcame a blocked punt that was recovered for a touchdown to pull out a 17-10 victory over Army. Last year's meeting was not decided until Navy safety Daiquan Thomasson leaped high to intercept an Army pass intended for a receiver in the end zone, preserving a narrow 21-17 win.
Navy's average margin of victory over Army from 2002 through 2013 was 23 points. Jeff Monken was an assistant at Navy for many of the most lopsided affairs. Monken is now in his third season as head coach at West Point and takes pride in the fact his clubs have come very close to upsetting the Midshipmen.
"There is no game that we play that is more important than this one. You can't compare it to anything else. This is the game we want to win more than any other game," Monken said. "We're going against a great team, a very well-coached team and we're going to have to play our very best to have a chance to win. Obviously, it's been a long time since Army has done that. Each team that I've coached, that has been their ultimate goal — to get a victory over Navy."
Army is vastly improved this season, compiling a 6-5 record and earning a berth in the Zaxby's Heart of Dallas Bowl. Monken is particularly proud of the defense, led by King and fellow inside linebacker Jeremy Timpf, which ranks fifth nationally with an average of 288.9 yards allowed.
"We've played better defense this season than we ever have since I've been at Army. Our defense has played well enough to win almost every game," Monken said.
Monken, another disciple of former Navy and current Georgia Tech head coach Johnson, installed the triple-option at Army and it has proved effective the past three seasons. The Black Knights currently rank second nationally in rushing offense with 328.9 yards per game on the ground — a yard better than third-ranked Navy.
However, Army ranks at the bottom of the Football Bowl Subdivision in turnovers lost (20) and red zone efficiency (.795), problem areas that have hampered the offense.
Army is one of the few teams to gouge Temple on the ground, grinding out 329 rushing yards in a 28-13 upset to open the season. Temple, which boasts the nation's third-ranked defense, limited Navy to 168 rushing yards in last Saturday's American Athletic Conference championship game.
However, Army managed only 165 rushing yards in a 13-6 defeat at Duke and 144 rushing yards in an ugly 31-12 loss to Air Force.
"Offensively, when we were healthy and conditioned coming out of summer camp, we performed fairly well. In some ways, I feel like we were a different team at the beginning of the year. We were hitting on all cylinders," Monken said.
Monken felt like the offense, which has been led by quarterback Ahmad Bradshaw and fullback Andy Davidson, wore down over the course of the season.
"It's a challenge to keep these guys rested and healthy at the academy.
There is just so much on them and they are just taxed to the limit. With the academics, with the military stuff … add in being a Division I athlete and you start to get worn down," he said. "Hopefully, we've been able to recover and recoup a little bit the last few weeks. When we've felt that our team has been healthy and rested, we've played pretty well on offense."
Army has not played since blowing out Morgan State, 60-0, on Nov. 19.
The Black Knights are in the midst of a three-week layoff leading up to Saturday's showdown.
"It definitely wasn't time off. We didn't have games, but we were practicing really hard," King said. "We're just looking forward to getting out there on Saturday and finishing strong."
Meanwhile, Navy has not gotten a bye week since Oct. 15 and will be playing a game for the eighth straight weekend. A scheduled bye week for Nov. 19 was lost when the East Carolina contest was rescheduled while the AAC championship game replaced the normal weekend off leading up to Army.
"It's not the most ideal situation. Obviously, you would like some time in between. You would never want your big rivalry game coming after a championship game," Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo said. "It is what it is. What can you do? You just have to make the best of it."
Niumatalolo is among those who cringe whenever Navy's winning streak is brought up. Previously, the longest winning streak in the series was five games, achieved on a couple occasions by both sides.
"None of those other games matter. We always contain it to this year's game. Even with all the pageantry and hoopla that surrounds the game, you still have to play the game between the white lines. That has always been our approach," Niumatalolo said. "We don't really talk about (the streak). We don't need to talk about it. Our players are smart, they know about the streak and recognize what it means."
Navy's senior class is the winningest in program history with a career record of 37-14. They are 3-0 in bowl games and led the Midshipmen to their first American Athletic Conference West Division crown. An otherwise sterling legacy would be tarnished by a loss to Army.
"There is definitely pride involved with that streak. We definitely don't want to be the senior class that drops the ball. We want to pass the torch to the next senior class and tell them it's their turn now," Navy senior defensive end Amos Mason said.
Navy's 14-game winning streak against Army is the longest of any major rivalry in college football. Next closest is Wisconsin, which has beaten Minnesota 13 straight times to capture the Paul Bunyan Axe.
While the coaching staff may not talk about the epic winning streak, the Navy players certainly discuss it among themselves.
"The streak is an amazing thing, and it's something that has been harped on ever since we got here," senior slotback Calvin Cass Jr. said. "I think one thing that allows that streak to keep going is being able to not think about it and go out and treat this game like any other.
To understand that if you make it bigger than what it is, that's when mistakes happen. If you don't over-exaggerate it, that's when you can add wins to a streak. You don't focus on the end result, you just focus on the present moment."
Timpf, a rare two-year captain at Army West Point, insists that 14 consecutive years of losing to Navy does not factor into Saturday's matchup in any way.
"I know everyone likes to talk about the streak, but we always have a new team every year. I don't know if what's happened in the past means that much to this year's team," Timpf said.
"Navy has another really good team this year and it's going to be a very tough game again on Saturday. We always focus on what we need to do to beat Navy this year. It really doesn't matter what happened in past years."
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