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For Black Knights, 'no other option' than beating Navy

By JUSTIN FEDICH | The Times Herald-Record | Published: December 8, 2019

MIDDLETOWN, N.Y. (Tribune News Service) -- Cole Christiansen doesn't want to get into specifics of that long 12-hour flight back from Hawaii, during which every cadet on the plane grappled with the loss, a feeling that has become much too familiar for Army this year.

No level of turbulence could equal the nose dive the Black Knights have taken after the steady climb over the past three years.

This season, they thought, was supposed to be more of the same. It should have been, well, a lot like the track Navy has been on in 2019. The Midshipmen (9-2) have won games they should win, lost a couple in which they were outmanned and have even stolen a couple they could just as easily have dropped.

Army (5-7), meanwhile, has failed to show up for even the most lopsided (on paper) battles and has stumbled at the finish line against a handful of formidable foes. The sad, frustrated faces have far outnumbered the jovial ones. The greatest source of emotion has sprouted from embarrassment, or a desire to be better. Head coach Jeff Monken has repeated the phrase "it's not for a lack of effort" with enough frequency to turn Bart Simpson's chalk into dust.

The Black Knights had led the country in rushing for the past three seasons. Navy has wrestled that title away in 2019. Quarterback Malcolm Perry has rushed and passed for more than 1,000 yards with two games still remaining. Kelvin Hopkins, who topped that mark for Army in 2018, has less than half the ground yardage of Perry. Hopkins, who has been injured plenty this year, also happens to be Army's leading rusher.

Even with Navy's five-game win streak in the middle of the season, the Midshipmen might be coming off their most impressive two-game stretch as they head into Philadelphia. Knocking off No. 25 SMU at home and then following it up with a road victory over Houston is no easy feat. Army, of course, put on a scoring clinic over Houston in the bowl game last December. That now seems like more than a year ago.

Army ended last season ranked No. 19 and started this one in the Top 30. Navy had earned no such honor. Its 2018 was littered with a minefield of defeats. Among the 10 losses the Midshipmen suffered was a 35-7 loss to Air Force. This year, Navy edged the Falcons 34-25, setting up a chance to win the Commander-In-Chief's Trophy on Saturday. Following a close loss at Air Force last month, Army can only hope to retain it.

Even during an abysmal 2018, Navy still gave Army a scare in its final game of the season. One year removed from that 17-10 triumph, the cadets know they are the underdog.

"There is no other option other than winning this game," said cornerback Elijah Riley.

Likewise, Navy knows from past Army-Navy clashes how little the trajectories of each season have affected how the game tends to play out.

Midshipmen head coach Ken Niumatalolo said at a press conference at Lincoln Financial Field this week, "Nothing that has happened in the past is going to have any bearing on this game."

Still, that doesn't mean it's a pick 'em. Army has been the stronger team each of the past three years and won each time, albeit by an average margin of four points.

Christiansen admitted that losing to Hawaii hurt, especially since it put a damper on an otherwise enjoyable week in paradise. But the players didn't spend too much time dwelling on their latest shortfall.

"Once the clock hit zero, it was all eyes on Navy," Christiansen said. "There wasn't a whole lot of looking back. This is the last frontier for the 2019 football season."

jfedich@th-record.com

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