How low can Army and Navy go? Expect another low-scoring game in 122nd meeting.
Showing his allegiance during Army-Navy game week for the school where his father, Steve, was a longtime assistant coach and scout, Bill Belichick wore a Naval Academy mask for his pregame interview with ESPN sideline reporter Lisa Salters on Monday. In his familiar laconic style, the New England Patriots coach acknowledged that the extraordinarily windy conditions at Highmark Stadium for that night’s showdown against the Buffalo Bills would “definitely be a factor in the game.”
The Patriots ran the ball 46 times and attempted only three passes in a 14-10 win, employing a game plan that would make Navy’s football team - and Army’s, too - proud ahead of the schools’ 122nd meeting Saturday in East Rutherford, N.J.
The forecast for the Army-Navy game at MetLife Stadium doesn’t call for quite as severe winds as the ones the Patriots and Bills experienced Monday, but expect a similarly run-heavy approach from both teams’ triple-option attacks. Army averages 7.7 pass attempts per game, the fewest in the country. Navy is right behind at 8.3. Air Force, which also features a triple-option offense, throws the ball 8.6 times per game. No other Football Bowl Subdivision program is averaging fewer than 20 pass attempts.
It’s no coincidence that the service academies run this type of offense. Height and weight restrictions make it impossible to recruit an offensive line of 325-pounders to protect a traditional pocket passer. Instead, Army, Navy and Air Force rely on deception and quick decision-making on the part of the quarterback to move the ball on the ground, often only a few yards at a time.
Air Force leads the nation with 340.8 rushing yards per game, while Army (301.2) and Navy (228.2) rank second and seventh, respectively. Fewer passes mean fewer clock stoppages, which mean fewer possessions for both teams. When two triple-option teams square off, both defenses have plenty of experience facing ground-based attacks, and the result is often a low-scoring battle of attrition. Air Force defeated Navy, 23-3, in September. Army knocked off Air Force, 21-14, last month in a game that went to overtime.
“We know each other very well,” Army Coach Jeff Monken said Monday. “Their team knows ours, and we know them. We recruit the same guys, and we compete over the same things all the time. It’ll be the toughest game we’ve played all year. We know that.”
In Army’s 15-0 win over Navy at Michie Stadium last season, the teams combined for 15 punts, 279 total yards and 12 first downs. Navy was 1 for 7 through the air; Army completed its only pass. The 15 points were the fewest in an Army-Navy game since the last tie in the series, a 3-3 stalemate in windy, near-freezing conditions at Philadelphia’s Veterans Stadium 40 years ago.
“It’s not quite as bad as a loss, but I see what they mean when they say a tie is like kissing your grandmother,” Navy kicker Steve Fehr, who missed a 49-yard field goal with 2:28 remaining, said in 1981 after the first Army-Navy game without a touchdown since 1934.
The Black Knights’ shutout last season marked the 15th straight year that the Army-Navy game went under the oddsmakers’ over-under total. The average over-under during the streak is 48.2, according to the Covers.com database, with a high of 64.5 points in 2007. The teams have combined for an average of 34 points over their past 15 meetings.
The over-under for this week’s game dropped to 34 points at some sportsbooks, which, according to ESPN’s David Purdum, matches the lowest total in college football over the past 20 seasons. Ohio State defeated Penn State, 21-10, in a 2004 game that closed with an over-under of 34 points.
Army (8-3) is a seven-point favorite over Navy (3-8) on Saturday.
“It’s hard to move the ball against each other. We know that,” Navy Coach Ken Niumatalolo said. “It always has been that way. . . . You just kind of go into games and see what you have to do to win.”