There are plenty of intense college football rivalries, but none have the real-world weight of Army-Navy. The seniors who just played in the Michigan-Ohio State and Alabama-Auburn classics will soon head off to the business world, graduate school or, in several cases, the NFL.
The firsties at the Naval Academy and at the United States Military Academy who’ll play in Saturday’s 114th edition of the rivalry in Philadelphia will begin five years of military service after May’s commencement ceremonies. While the war in Afghanistan is thankfully winding down and the conflict in Iraq is history – from an American perspective – the spring graduates from Annapolis and West Point will be repaying their country for their free educations until 2019.
And while Navy, which is 7-4 and riding a four-game winning streak, will play its 10th postseason game in 11 years against Middle Tennessee State in the Armed Forces Bowl on Dec. 30 in Fort Worth, Saturday’s game has much more significance to the participants.
“As a freshman, you are not allowed to say much, but you are allowed to say, ‘Go Navy beat Army,’ “ said Ken Niumatalolo, who can match his mentor Paul Johnson by becoming just the second Navy coach to win his first six games against the Cadets. “It’s a special game.”
Indeed, while the losing players at USC-UCLA and Harvard-Yale are usually bitter after a defeat, following Saturday’s game, the losing team will sing its alma mater in front of its student body while intertwined with the winning team before they walk together across the field and repeat the performance for the victorious school’s student body. The only postgame ritual that comes close is the handshake line at the end of a Stanley Cup playoff series.
“If you’re in a certain state or at a certain school, a rivalry can mean everything to that state or that region,” Niumatalolo said. “The Army-Navy game touches all of America. We all know someone who has served in the military. Plus the pure competition of the game, the pure rivalry, just makes people feel good our country.”
Of course, the people who will feel especially good Saturday evening will probably be wearing Navy blue and gold and not Army black and gold. The Cadets (3-8) have won the game just twice since 1996. The Midshipmen won the past 11 games by an average of 22 points, although they prevailed by just 27-21 in 2011 and 17-13 in 2012.
Firsties such as linebacker/co-captain Cody Peterson, who’s second in FBS with 7.6 solo tackles per game, don’t want to be part of the first class in eight years to lose to the Cadets during their years in Annapolis.
However, Navy’s superb sophomore quarterback Keenan Reynolds doesn’t see a lopsided rivalry. The only Army game that he has been part of was last year’s nail-biter which he won with an 8-yard touchdown run with just 4:41 left, a play after he had completed a 49-yard pass to receiver Brandon Turner. After Reynolds scored, the Cadets reached the Midshipmen’s 14 line with 1:04 still remaining before Navy nose guard Barry Dabney recovered a muffed handoff.
“We’re not focused on what happened in the past,” Reynolds said. “If we get caught up in all the hoopla of the game and all the extra things from people that aren’t playing, then you can get sidetracked and ultimately that can lead to defeat. We’re focused on our jobs in between the white lines and doing them to the best of our abilities.”
The Midshipmen usually do. A victory on Saturday would not only extend their series record to 12 in a row, but would give Navy its ninth Commander in Chief’s Trophy (the three-sided competition that also includes the Air Force Academy) in 11 years.
Navy also takes plenty of pride in its 14-6 record since it followed a 5-7 season in 2011 – its only losing campaign since 2002 — with a 1-3 start in 2012. Two of Navy’s four losses have come against ranked teams, Duke and Notre Dame, a third came in double-overtime, and the last came after Reynolds was injured with his team in the lead.
“One major factor is a lot of continuity on our staff,” said Niumatalolo, who has retained 11 of his 13 assistants throughout his six seasons in command and who’s just nine victories shy of becoming the winningest coach in Navy history. “There are some things we know that work here and we know what kind of kids to recruit.”
Such as Tennessean Reynolds, who ran for an NCAA-record seven touchdowns, including the game-winner to beat San Jose State in triple overtime, in Navy’s last contest. Reynolds leads FBS with 14.2 points per game and is second among quarterbacks with 102.2 rushing yards per game.
With one more rushing touchdown, Reynolds will tie the NCAA season record of 27, while the 18.7 points he produces per game (including his eight touchdown passes) isn’t far behind the averages of Heisman Trophy candidates Johnny Manziel, Jameis Winston and Jordan Lynch.
Reynolds is generously listed as 5-foot-11 and 185 pounds, but he’s 13-6 as Navy’s starter including the loss to Western Kentucky which he exited with concussion-like symptoms during the second quarter.
“He’s mentally tough and one of the best players I’ve been around,” Niumatalolo said. “[And] physically … he’s one of the toughest players I’ve been around.”
Which makes him a perfect fit in Annapolis.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last three Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011.