Another college football team might carry a 3-9 record into its last game of the season and just go through the motions, hoping to get the year over with and wait for the offseason to regroup.
Navy doesn’t have a motivational problem, however. The Midshipmen will be face-to-face with Army on Saturday at Lincoln Financial Field for the 119th edition of one of the greatest rivalries in sports, and can make it a successful season with a victory.
“One game changes everything,” Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo said this week. “Everything is focused on this game. We’ve got amnesia about what has happened in the past this season because none of it matters. We’ve got to get ready for this game.
“Our players know what time it is. It’s Army. That’s all you need to say.”
The Mids have lost eight of their last nine, a stretch that includes defeats by College Football Playoff participant Notre Dame and five other opponents that qualified for bowls.
The Black Knights (9-2), who will play later this month in the Armed Forces Bowl, come in as the favorite and the nation’s No. 22 team in the AP poll. They have won seven straight games since taking Oklahoma, a CFP team, into overtime on the road before losing, 28-21.
Army, which has won the last two games in this series, has a lot at stake. Besides gaining worldwide bragging rights among the U.S. armed forces, a victory would tie the program record for most wins in a season and would be its 28th in a three-year span, more than the 27 posted during the Black Knights’ three-year national championship run from 1944 through 1946.
But no one on the Army team is thinking it will be an easy game.
“We don’t look at them as an underdog,” linebacker Cole Christiansen said. “Our coaches tell us that every week it’s a faceless opponent. We’re going to prepare the same way.
“Navy’s a good football team with good athletes. Every time we play them, it doesn’t matter what the records are. We were 2-9 and they were 9-2 three years ago and it was a four-point football game. We play each other every year and we generally know what’s coming. It just comes down to, who wants to be the tougher team on that day.”
Counting that 2015 game, the last three meetings have been decided by a total of nine points. The Mids had a chance for victory last year on the final play but Bennett Moehring missed a 48-yard field goal and Army won, 14-13.
Neither team turned the ball over in the 2017 game, and Army coach Jeff Monken said focus will be the key, given all the pregame hype.
“We’re not going to win the game on emotion,” he said. “The team that’s most excited and the most up for it isn’t going to win the game. The team that executes the best is going to win the game. So we’ve got to try to execute well enough to just make one more play than they do, and to score one more point than they do. And that’s what happened last year.”
The game also means a lot to the seniors of both teams who will start fulfilling a five-year military commitment after graduation and likely will not play organized football again. The Army seniors want to go out with three straight wins in the series, while the Navy seniors would like to end their year on a positive note.
“It definitely would mean the world to me and all the other seniors to get this win, especially with the season that we’ve had,” Mids fullback Anthony Gargiulo said. “It would send us out on a good note knowing we did what we had to do.”
Army vs. Navy Preview
Saturday, 3 p.m. at Lincoln Financial Field
Records: Army, 9-2, ranked No. 22 by the AP; Navy, 3-9.
Coaches: Army, Jeff Monken (fifth season, 33-28); Navy, Ken Niumatalolo (11th season, 87-57).
History: This is the 119th meeting of the two teams. Navy leads the series, 60-51-7. Army has won the last two games, including last year’s 14-13 victory over the Midshipmen in snowy conditions at the Linc.
March-on schedule: The Brigade of Midshipmen will march on to the field at 12:11 p.m., followed by the Corps of Cadets at 12:41 p.m.
Three things to watch
The strange and unusual
There aren’t two teams in football that know each other better than Army and Navy. They run a similar style of offense with the triple option, featuring quarterbacks who can deftly handle the ball and run well. Both teams also scheme from a 3-4 defense. The two sides will do what they do best, but don’t be surprised if they do some things out of the ordinary, like pass more and call some reverses. Army has had particular success through the air, averaging more than 20 yards per completion. Navy senior quarterback Zach Abey, who made his first career start against Army two years ago, will start the final game of his academy career Saturday.
Which team makes the first mistake?
There weren’t many mistakes in last year’s game. Neither team turned the ball over despite a field that was covered with snow. The two teams totaled six penalties, but it was two flags late that hurt Navy. Needing a field goal to win the game, the Midshipmen got the ball to the Army 23 but were called twice for false starts. The drive ended at the 31 when Bennett Moehring came on to try a 48-yard field goal, but the ball drifted just wide to the left, and the Black Knights were the team doing the celebrating. Regarding turnovers, the Mids have forced 21 this season but Army has lost the ball just seven times all year.
Making it “just another game”
Yeah, right. Figuring that Army and Navy think about this game 364 days a year – they play it on the 365th – it would seem impossible that players and coaches on both teams could keep their emotions in check and focus solely on football. But that’s the deal here, making sure that everyone puts aside the hype, carries out their assignments and not try to make heroic plays on either side of the ball. Considering the last three Army-Navy games have been decided by a total of nine points, one bad error in blocking or one missed tackle could spell the difference.