It has been 23 years since an Army senior football player walked off the field – in this case, Veterans Stadium – and celebrated a four-year sweep of Navy in the annual service-academy rivalry.

Now, with a chance to leave the academy with a 4-0 record on Dec. 14 at Lincoln Financial Field, Black Knights quarterback Kelvin Hopkins Jr. is thrilled to have the opportunity.

“Definitely, especially being 3-0 as a senior class and being kind of the first class to have done that in a long time,” the senior captain said Wednesday, during the Army-Navy luncheon at the Linc.

“Getting that chance to go 4-0 and leave as a four-time winner is definitely an experience all its own. But just leaving on a high note as a football player in your career, you want to end that with a win, so there’s that added pressure. But, just going out there one more time is a special experience in itself.”

Hopkins scored two touchdowns last season in Army’s 17-10 victory, a result that clinched the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy for the second straight year and helped lead the Black Knights to a program record 11 wins, including a season-ending 70-14 rout of Houston in the Armed Forces Bowl.

This year, however, Army has been hampered by injuries and enters the rivalry contest with a 5-7 mark. Among their defeats is a double-overtime loss at Michigan and three others by one possession.

“We lost close games this year, where in the past we’ve won those close games,” Army head coach Jeff Monken said. “In the three seasons prior, we’ve been 19-5 in one-score games. This year, we’re 1-5 in one-score games.

“We’ve just got to find a way to get one more stop, or score on one more drive, complete a drive, and you change the game. You change the course of the season. So, it’s been hard on our team, because we came into the season with very high expectations.”

Jeff Monken, Army coach, on this season: “We lost close games this year where in the past we’ve won those close games.”
JOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer
Jeff Monken, Army coach, on this season: “We lost close games this year where in the past we’ve won those close games.”

On the other hand, Navy, which ended 2018 at 3-10, the fewest wins in Ken Niumatalolo’s 12-year tenure as head coach, is rolling along at 9-2 and is ranked 23rd in the Associated Press poll and 24th in the College Football Playoff rankings.

Niumatalolo brought in six new assistant coaches in the offseason. The defense, led by first-year defensive coordinator Brian Newberry, has shown significant improvement. The Midshipmen have dropped from 33.5 points allowed per game to 24.2 and from 426.4 yards in total defense to 342.4.

“We’ve improved dramatically in so many defensive statistical categories with basically the same players,” Niumatalolo said. “So our players have done a great job of buying in, and obviously the new staff has done a great job in implementing their system. The way they’ve improved and the amount they’ve improved has been pretty remarkable.”

On offense, senior quarterback Malcolm Perry is one of the nation’s top rushers, with 1,500 yards gained (sixth in FBS) and an average of 136.4 per game (fifth), while scoring 19 touchdowns.

The Mids, whose only losses have been to Memphis and Notre Dame, both nationally ranked teams, would like to get their seniors a win in their final Army-Navy game. Perry said it’s more having “a burning desire” to be successful in that game than a sense of urgency.

“We came into a program that was on a 14-game winning streak,” Perry said of the seniors. “Being the first group to lose that game, that builds up a lot inside of you. And losing the next two years, that builds up inside of you naturally as a competitor. Beating our rival, just being the last game, I think urgency might fit there, but more so it’s just a burning desire.”