Maryland, Navy hope football matchup rekindles local rivalry
Sunday, September 5, 2010; 11:49 PM
The U.S. Naval Academy and the University of Maryland are separated by approximately 30 miles. Coaches from both schools have become accustomed to in-state recruiting battles. Midshipmen and Terrapins players, if not friends, certainly are familiar with one another if for no other reason than proximity. It all adds up to what would seem a natural rivalry.
Only one problem: The teams have played just once over the past 44 seasons. They'll square off again on Monday in a nationally televised game at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore.
"We play Virginia. That's a rivalry," Maryland Coach Ralph Friedgen said. "We play West Virginia. That's a rivalry. We play Virginia Tech. That's a rivalry. But when you are playing someone 25 miles away from you, it's going to turn into a rivalry, and that is what I would like to see it become."
Both Friedgen and Navy Coach Ken Niumatalolo reiterated as much during a media session in August at Baltimore Ravens training camp in Westminster, Md., to promote the game being called the Crab Bowl. They stated their preference for playing each other regularly, which the schools last did in the 1950s through the mid-'60s, and are working to try to get that accomplished, although they are not scheduled to play again anytime soon after Monday.
The teams last played in 2005, when Maryland quarterback Sam Hollenbach completed an 11-yard touchdown pass to Drew Weatherly with 1 minute 1 second to play to rally the Terrapins to a 23-20 victory at M&T Bank Stadium.
That dramatic finish would not have been possible had it not been for a conversion on fourth and eight one play earlier in which Hollenbach tossed a swing pass to Lance Ball, who got by two defenders for the first down to set up the winning touchdown.
Since then, both programs have been traveling in different directions. Maryland has had just two winning seasons over the past four years. Last year, the Terrapins lost 10 games for the first time, and one of their two wins was a close shave over division I-AA James Madison, 38-35 in overtime. Those circumstances have had many critics of the program calling for Friedgen's dismissal, and it's no secret he begins this season embattled after 10 years at his alma mater, even though he has guided the Terrapins to six bowl games.
Navy, meantime, has been enjoying prosperity unprecedented in school history. That run has included four straight seasons of at least eight wins, and last year's 10-4 record marked only the third time the Midshipmen have won that many games. Navy has played in a bowl game in each of the past four seasons, and Niumatalolo has coached three of them since taking over for Paul Johnson for the final game of 2007, when it lost to Utah in the Poinsettia Bowl.
"It's going to be a great atmosphere," said Niumatalolo, who was an assistant at Navy from 1995 to 1998 and later from 2002 to 2007 before inheriting the program from Johnson. "Last time we were there, we knew the stakes were high. It was like a bowl game, so we understand it's going to be the same thing. We're really looking forward to it. It's going to be an exciting atmosphere."
Navy has plenty of reason to be optimistic for its first game and, for that matter, the entire season. The Midshipmen have back 14 starters from the team that walloped Missouri, 35-13, in the Texas Bowl, most notably quarterback Ricky Dobbs, who ran for 166 yards and three touchdowns on 30 carries in the victory. Dobbs set an NCAA record last year with 27 rushing touchdowns, the most by a quarterback in one season.
The Midshipmen have designs on more this season, including setting a school record for wins. With that could come an invitation to a BCS bowl game and legitimate recognition for Dobbs in the Heisman Trophy race.
"Ever since we came back from Christmas break, it's been all about Maryland," Navy senior left tackle Jeff Battapaglia said. "We're as excited as ever to play a big ACC school, get to be on ESPN and showcase our talent and make things work."
Maryland can only hope this season's opener doesn't match last season's debacle. The Terrapins lost to California, 52-13, for the second-worst margin of defeat since Friedgen became coach. It also was the worst season-opening loss for Maryland since 1892.
Now the Terrapins must be ready to defend Navy's triple-option offense, which finished fourth in the country in rushing last season after leading the nation an NCAA-record four consecutive years. Maryland second-year defensive coordinator Don Brown, however, does have experience against the option. When he was the head coach at Massachusetts, the Minutemen lost to Navy, 21-20, early in 2006. Massachusetts limited Navy to 289 total yards in that game.
"We have been looking at it for a long time, watching film all summer, and we've been going against it in camp," Maryland safety Kenny Tate said of the triple option. "That's been a great preparation for it, but I know it is going to be a lot faster during the game, but we are prepared, having watched it for so long."
Staff writer Eric Prisbell contributed to this report.