PHILADELPHIA — Navy Coach Ken Niumatalolo and Army Coach Rich Ellerson have spoken glowingly about each other since both took over service academy programs in the last six years. The two have been friends for much longer, going back to when Ellerson, then an assistant coach at Hawaii, recruited Niumatalolo to play quarterback in the late-1980s.
They reunited again last week during Army-Navy media day at Lincoln Financial Field, but the pleasantries were at a minimum given the heated rivalry between the schools and the opposite trajectories the programs are taking heading into Saturday’s 114th installment. Navy has beaten Army a series-record 11 straight times, and Niumatalolo has had one losing season in Annapolis.
In his fifth year with the Black Knights, Ellerson has had four losing seasons and has failed to amass more than three victories in any of the last three. Perhaps the most disheartening of his five consecutive losses to Navy came last year, 17-13, after the Black Knights’ potential winning drive ended in the final minutes on a fumbled exchange.
“That was definitely an eye-opener, but Army’s a good team,” Niumatalolo said of last year’s game, the closest Army has come to beating Navy during the streak. “We’ve got to come ready to play every week. We are who we are, too. I mean we’re not Alabama or LSU or anybody. We’re still the Naval Academy, and so every week we’ve got to get up to play, especially when you’re playing your rival.”
Since taking over as head coach for the Midshipmen’s bowl game in 2007, Niumatalolo has gone 47-30 to rise to third all-time in wins at Navy. He holds the school record for most wins in a coach’s first two, three, four, five and six seasons and is the third coach to begin 5-0 against Army.
Niumatalolo also has 10 victories over BCS schools, nearly half of Navy’s total (21, the most by a non-BCS program over that span) since 2003. The Midshipmen have two victories this season over BCS programs, most recently beating Pittsburgh, 24-21, on Oct. 26 at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.
Of all the victories in the Niumatalolo era, the most satisfying continue to be against service academy opponents, with Navy winning the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy in eight of 10 years. The CIC is not at stake in this year’s Army-Navy game after incumbent Navy beat Air Force and the Falcons beat Army.
“It’s hard to win, and I think that’s just a testament to our coaches honestly,” Midshipmen senior linebacker and co-captain Cody Peterson said. “They prepare us very well, and players trust the coaches, especially when it comes to the small things like taking care of the ball, turnovers, penalties. That’s something our coaches do very well with us.”
Navy (7-4) is first nationally in fewest penalties (2.8) per game and fewest penalty yards (23.1) and is 15th in turnover margin (plus-0.5). The Midshipmen have won three in a row and four of five and, regardless of Saturday’s outcome, are ensured of playing in the Armed Forces Bowl on Dec. 30 in Fort Worth against Middle Tennessee.
Army (3-8), meantime, may be playing for Ellerson’s job. His status remains uncertain after Athletic Director Boo Corrigan repeatedly has said he and school officials would begin determining after the season if Ellerson comes back. Ellerson’s contract runs through 2015.
Ellerson has been guarded in the weeks leading to Saturday, closing practices and declining to reveal who will be his starting quarterback. Junior Angel Santiago began the season as the starter, but sophomore A.J. Schurr scored four second-half touchdowns to direct a furious comeback that fell short against Hawaii, 49-42, Nov. 30.
“Coach Ellerson is part of the brotherhood, and this win [would be] so big for the brotherhood,” Army senior tri-captain and tackle Momo Kime said. “That brotherhood extends generations behind us. My father is a part of the brotherhood, and so this win would mean as much as it does to him as it does to me.”