By Camille Powell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 4, 2009
PHILADELPHIA -- For the players at Army and Navy, the first Thursday in December has usually been a time to put the finishing touches on their preparation for their annual rivalry game. But this year on the first Thursday in December, Army senior defensive tackle Victor Ugenyi wasn't at practice. He was at Lincoln Financial Field, answering questions from reporters and giving a short speech at the annual Army-Navy media luncheon.
The Army-Navy game, which had traditionally been played on the first Saturday in December, was moved back by a week to give it more exposure. The teams will meet on Dec. 12 in Philadelphia, with the game televised nationally on CBS. The last time the Army-Navy game was played this late was in 1931.
"Having an extra week is a little strange," said Ugenyi, whose team hasn't played since Nov. 21. "It helps us out, it gets a lot of people healthy, hopefully, and it gives us more time to go over Navy's plays. . . . But we're trying not to get overanxious."
This Saturday, there are nine games involving nationally ranked teams, including the Southeastern Conference, Big 12, ACC and Conference USA championship games. Next Saturday, Army-Navy will stand alone as the only division I-A game.
"We just felt strongly that this game deserved to be a focal point nationally," Navy Athletic Director Chet Gladchuk said of the move. "I think it got diluted a bit with regards to the championships; those other guys and those other conferences were infringing on our territory. The next thing we knew when we turned around and took a good hard look at it, we had four or five championships being played on our Saturday. [Army-Navy] needed its own identity again."
Navy (8-4) has dominated its rival in recent years, winning seven games in a row by an average score of 39-10. A victory this season would give the Midshipmen the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy for a record seventh consecutive season. Navy's defense has not given up a touchdown to the Black Knights since the final seconds of the 2006 game.
Army (5-6) has already won more games this season than it has in any other season since 1996, when the Black Knights finished 10-2 and played in the Independence Bowl. A win over Navy would make Army bowl eligible and allow it to book its spot in the EagleBank Bowl, which will be held on Dec. 29 at RFK Stadium.
"The fact that there's so much on the line is gratifying," said Rich Ellerson, Army's first-year coach. "We've done just well enough to make it meaningful on a lot of different levels. It's wholly appropriate that the Army-Navy classic is the venue for this next adventure."
Both teams run the triple-option offense and have coaches who studied under Paul Johnson, the former Navy and current Georgia Tech coach.
Ellerson and Navy Coach Ken Niumatalolo are "lifetime friends," in the words of Ellerson. In the mid-1980s, he recruited Niumatalolo to the University of Hawaii; Niumatalolo recalled his parents serving Ellerson traditional Samoan food in an attempt to "butter him up a little bit, so I could get a scholarship offer." Niumatalolo stayed at Hawaii to serve as a graduate assistant; he moved to a full-time assistant's spot when Ellerson left in 1992 to become an assistant at Arizona.
"I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for him," Niumatalolo said.
Those are the kinds of story lines that might have gotten lost in the crush of high-profile games this weekend. But there are a few drawbacks to the later date. The game now falls perilously close to the start of exams at both academies; Army's begin on Dec. 14, and Navy's on Dec. 15.
"I'm not overjoyed by that," said Army senior wide receiver Ali Villanueva, who is majoring in systems engineering. "I'm going to be like, 'When am I going to start studying?' "
And it could lead to colder weather in Philadelphia. As of now, the extended forecast is calling for temperatures in the 40s and rain on Dec 12. But Navy's two captains -- guard Osei Asante and linebacker Ross Pospisil, both of whom call Texas home -- are actually hoping that it will be even colder at kickoff.
"Ross and I are praying for snow," Asante said. "Being from Texas, we've never played in snow -- ever. This is our last chance. I know it's not going to snow in Houston [during the bowl game]. I know that much."