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Wednesday, September 29, 2010; D2

Molloy, Merchant return at right time

Right tackle Matt Molloy and free safety Emmett Merchant both are on track to be back in the starting lineup for Saturday's game at Air Force, Navy Coach Ken Niumatalolo confirmed after Tuesday's practice.

Molloy, a senior, had missed the past two games after leaving a 17-14 loss to Maryland in the second half of the season opener. Molloy became the starter at right tackle halfway through his sophomore year and had not missed a game until this season.

In Molloy's absence, the Midshipmen have been inconsistent offensively, amassing 193 total yards in a 13-7 win against Georgia Southern on Sept. 11 and bogging down in the first half the following week against Louisiana Tech before pulling away, 37-23.

"I would have preferred to miss no games, but I definitely didn't want to miss this one," Molloy said. "This is one of our primary rivals. It's a great team, and I just want to get after it."

Merchant, meantime, sat out the Louisiana Tech game because of a concussion from the previous week. Merchant, a senior, has been a cornerstone of Navy's experienced secondary that also includes safety Wyatt Middleton and cornerback Kevin Edwards, both seniors as well.

Merchant underwent a battery of tests Tuesday and was cleared to play.

"The big thing right now is just making sure from a physical standpoint that he's ready," Niumatalolo said. "Mentally, Emmett's like a coach out there. He knows what we're doing. He's been in a ton of big ballgames for us, been in hostile stadiums, so I'm not concerned about his mental part."

The probable return of Molloy and Merchant comes at a critical juncture in Navy's season. Not only does Saturday's game represent the first leg of its pursuit of the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy, but the Falcons have looked the most impressive among the service academies over the first part of the season.

Air Force ranks first in the country in rushing, dismantled Brigham Young, 35-14, in its second game and lost to No. 7 Oklahoma, 27-24, on Sept. 18. The Falcons are 91/2 point favorites over Navy, which has beaten Air Force seven straight times. The average margin of victory in those games, including Navy's 16-13 overtime win last season, is 5.7 points.

"It's huge," Niumatalolo said of having back Molloy and Merchant, "because when you get in games like this, guys forget things, things you'd think would be routine, putting toothpaste on a toothbrush. Guys forget, so if a guy's been there, done that, it might seem like a big blur, but guys with experience, just their training takes over, and it becomes instinct."

- Gene Wang

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