Season 1 was a disaster. A dismal 2-9 record with alternate degrees of erratic offense and defense. Sometimes bad. Sometimes just enough to lose. But losses they were. Season 2 is imminent. It represents one of the longest-living, most intense rivalries in sports. Yes, Army – Navy.
An Army victory purges some – certainly not all – of the disastrous feelings of those first 11 games. A loss just exacerbates the misery. In contrast, Navy is 9-2, ranked 23rd in the nation, and will be playing in the Military Bowl Dec. 28 against Pittsburgh. But there are no bowl games in which the Midshipmen will play that matches the importance of this one. The nine victories are excellent; a victory in the bowl game is welcome; a loss to Army would leave a lingering bad taste.
The countdown to the next Army – Navy game begins, give or take, about five minutes following the completion of the previous one. Months have turned to weeks and it’s now down to hours. Army vs. Navy.
“Obviously this is one of the biggest games we’ll ever play,” said Army fullback Matt Giachinta, whose team will take on Navy for the 116th time Saturday at Lincoln Financial Field. “We try not to look ahead at the beginning of the season, but Army – Navy is sitting there at the end of the season. It’s a great atmosphere and it’s exciting for everyone to see. We’re excited for the opportunity this weekend.”
“This football team has never lost to Navy and that is the way we want to approach it,” Army head coach Jeff Monken said. “These guys are not responsible for the last how many years it has been; they are responsible for this team and this year. We have to do our very best to try and win this year. I was on the other side of it [as an assistant coach at Navy] and it a great source of pride for each team and for each class, especially for our seniors, and to win this year would be great.”
The tragic number for the Black Knights is 13 – the consecutive number of losses they’ve endured against the Midshipmen. It has been labeled America’s Game, but it’s belonged to Navy for awhile. Before the Midshipmen went on their unprecedented streak, neither team had won more than five in a row. Navy leads the series 59-49-7.
Many of the games have been routs. Not last year. In fact, Army took the early lead when Army’s Josh Jenkins blocked a punt by Pablo Beltran. Xavier Moss recovered the ball and ran seven yards for a 7-0 lead. Army’s intent was to stop the Navy running game, and it had been successful. So forced into the air, Navy’s record-setting quarterback, Keenan Reynolds, hit wide receiver Jamir Tillman with a 39-yard pass to get a drive moving. A 9-yard scoring pass to Tillman tied the game with 18 seconds left in the first half.
“We got off to a really slow start and had that blocked punt for a touchdown. Things were looking pretty grim for a while, but we dug down and found a way to win,” Reynolds said at this year’s pre-game press conference. “That’s kind of been the story for us against Army, just making plays when necessary and finding ways to win.”
Navy took the lead on a third-quarter field goal, then put the game away in the fourth on a 1-yard Reynolds touchdown run. He wound up rushing for 100 yards and a touchdown on 26 carries while completing 6 of 8 passes for 77 yards.
“We got off to a really slow start and had that blocked punt for a touchdown. Things were looking pretty grim for a while, but we dug down and found a way to win,” Reynolds said. “That’s kind of been the story for us against Army, just making plays when necessary and finding ways to win.”
If Reynolds finds another such win, it will be his fourth against Army; it would be the first time a Navy quarterback would have gone 4-0 against Army.
“That would be pretty awesome, something to be real proud of,” Reynolds said. “But it’s not going to happen by just showing up. We have to prepare properly and make sure we are ready to go on game day.”
In fact, he is the only quarterback in Navy history to have started four seasons.
“That’s impressive,” Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo said. “There have been some really good quarterbacks to play in this game. To go 4-0 against your arch rival would be remarkable.”
“I think I’m going to enjoy all the little things about the game — coming out for warmups, going to midfield for the coin toss, that type of stuff,” Reynolds said. “I want to enjoy the atmosphere one last time, but once the whistle blows it will be all business. As soon as the game gets going it will be time to put all that stuff out of mind and focus on the task at hand.”
Army enters the game a 23-point underdog. Just like there are no atheists in foxholes, point spreads in this game are often rendered moot early.
“There is going to be great emotion and two teams competing very fiercely in this rivalry. If the prognosticators were right, there would be no reason to play the game,” Monken said. “We are going to go out and play our best. The team that is favored doesn’t always win and hopefully that will be the case this Saturday. I know that nobody is giving us a chance besides us, but we are the only ones that matter. We are the ones playing the game. Our guys believe and they believe in each other and I believe in this team. We have come close enough in enough ball games this year for me to feel like I’m not absolutely crazy in thinking we are a much better football team than 2-9. But, I don’t think that matters for this football game. They are physically talented, they are a good football team and a well-coached football team. I have great respect for them, but I don’t think we have a football team with a bunch of zeros. Guys who can’t play, can’t tackle, block or run the ball. We have guys who will play really hard and give us a chance on Saturday.”
The last time Army beat Navy, Monken was the slotbacks coach at Georgia Southern. In contrast, given the length of the losing streak, it’s likely few – if any – player on the team is old enough to remember the Black Knights’ last win.
“It would definitely be a sense of accomplishment,” Army tight end Kelvin White said. “It is something that we are looking forward to and I am excited for it. But as a senior I won’t play anymore after Saturday, so it is a little rough. A win would be great for our team and the whole academy. It would give us a lot of momentum gong into the off season and next season and it would keep everyone’s arrow up.”
In recent years, it is Army’s quiver that has been bare. This time? The countdown continues.