BALTIMORE - Navy's unprecedented 12-game winning streak against Army has increased the pressure on both teams today, in the 115th meeting between the service academies.
The Cadets are desperate to snap a slide that began when the current crop of players were in grade school. The Midshipmen are determined to maintain the upper hand in a series that began in 1890.
"The streak is out there. Everybody on the team, everybody at the school realizes that," Navy senior captain Parrish Gaines said. "It does kind of seem like something we've got to do. Everybody I've played with on this team has beat these guys every year."
No Navy team since 2001 has lost to Army. During that time, the Midshipmen have outscored the Cadets. 400-132, including 34-7 last year.
Before this 12-game run, the longest winning streak either team enjoyed was five.
"This is a game we want to win, particularly with all the talk about Navy having won so many in a row," said first-year Army coach Jeff Monken, who helped the Midshipmen get the streak started while serving as an assistant coach at the Naval Academy from 2002-07. Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo was an assistant with the Midshipmen during that time.
Niumatalolo notes that, even a year after Army hired his former colleague to be its head coach, it still feels "weird."
The two worked together at the Naval Academy under former coach Paul Johnson - Monken as a running backs and special-teams coach and Niumatalolo as the offensive coordinator. Their families became close, even after Monken left with Johnson for Georgia Tech in 2008. Niumatalolo counseled Monken during daily phone calls as Monken pondered whether to take the head-coaching position at Georgia Southern in 2010.
So when the two face one another from opposite sidelines, Niumatalolo said he will be conflicted.
"I was happy because that's what he wanted, but of all the jobs, you had to pick Army? Couldn't you have picked another job?" he said last week. "I'm happy for him. I just wish it was at another school."
Monken, meanwhile, is not backing down from his former employer or his friend. From the first day he took the job, Monken began putting "Beat Navy" posters up throughout the team's locker room and practice facility.
"There's a constant reminder that that's the game you've got to win," he said. "We could play this thing in the Walmart parking lot or the face of the moon. These two teams are going to battle and it's going to be a big deal."
Army (4-7) is a decided underdog against Navy (6-5) But there have been far bigger upsets in a rivalry the Midshipmen lead, 58-49-7.
"Coach Monken said one thing to us: Right now, we haven't played that team," Army senior defensive back Geoffery Bacon said. "The 2014 Army team hasn't played the 2014 Navy team. So right now, we're 0-0."
Beating Navy is always the top priority at Army.
"Not just to end the 12-game winning streak, but for us as a program," said running back Raymond Maples, a senior who starred at West Catholic. "To beat Navy to end the season - our archrival - is our mantra. It's what we live by."
Army knows it must stop quarterback Keenan Reynolds, the key to Navy's triple-option attack, if it has any chance of winning.
A year ago, Reynolds ran through the Cadets for 136 yards and three touchdowns. His 61 rushing touchdowns are an NCAA record for a quarterback, and he's only a junior.
"We've had a lot of good ones over the years, but Keenan is definitely the best since I've been here," Niumatalolo said. "His decision-making is on a different level. People always try to change it up and throw different wrinkles at us, but against that guy you're wasting your time."
Monken downplayed any perceptions that playing the game at the Ravens' M&T Stadium, only about 30 miles from the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., gives Navy the advantage.
"These games aren't in anybody's backyard, he said. "It's an NFL stadium.
"In my first year at Navy, in 2002, we played in the Meadowlands. That's Army's backyard and it didn't make any difference. It doesn't matter where you play. The difference is how you play."