By Gene Wang
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 11, 2010; 12:12 AM
Over the past three years, the Navy football team has left no doubt regarding its supremacy over Army. So emphatic were the triumphs that the Black Knights didn't even set foot in the end zone in any of those games, except to run onto the field and back into the locker room after yet another humbling installment of one of the most compelling rivalries in sports.
Other lopsided numbers favoring the Midshipmen include a combined 89-6 margin of victory, no points allowed in any second half and limiting Army to an average of 186 yards of total offense. It's not as if Navy's domination in the series has been only a recent development, either. The Midshipmen have won eight consecutive games against Army, the longest stretch by either team since the teams began playing in 1890, and none of those wins has been by less than 12 points.
Navy's current three-game winning streak, during which it has averaged nearly 50 points per game in victories over East Carolina, Central Michigan and Arkansas State, suggests that more of the same could be expected when the Midshipmen renew their rivalry with Army. Except Navy (8-3) isn't buying any of it. Not a single lick. That's been Coach Ken Niumatalolo's charge in the weeks leading up to Saturday's game at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, delivering without equivocation the message to his players that this Army team is anything but an easy mark.
"This is a new year, a new team," Niumatalolo said of the Black Knights. "They're bowl eligible. We know they're much better. Their seniors want to go out on top, too, so anytime we play a service academy, you throw out your record, you throw out anything prior to that game and just get ready for the [game]. That's all that's going to matter."
Yet Army's record this year certainly has the attention of everyone associated with the college football operation in Annapolis. At 6-5, the Black Knights are going to a bowl for the first time since 1996, and they enter this game ranked ninth in the country in rushing (260 yards per game) and tied for 12th in turnover margin at plus-one per game.
Then there are the intangibles, namely a Navy senior class that would love to go undefeated against its rival, and a group of Army seniors longing to spare themselves the indignity of going 0-4 against the Midshipmen.
"I expect their best," said Navy senior quarterback Ricky Dobbs, who had 113 rushing yards and one touchdown on 33 carries in last year's 17-3 win, his first game against Army. "I can't expect the same Army team as last year because it's a whole new year, just like they can't expect the same Navy team because it's a whole different team."
What hasn't changed much at all for the Midshipmen is their prolific triple-option offense that's ranked fifth nationally in rushing at 303 yards per game. Navy has been especially ruthless during its current winning streak, which began on Nov. 6 with a 41-point victory over bowl-bound East Carolina and included a 35-19 win over Arkansas State the Saturday before Thanksgiving. The Midshipmen amassed 465 yards of total offense in that game, with Dobbs running for 154 yards and three touchdowns, both single-game highs for him this season.
Navy has scored on 20 of its past 27 possessions and has failed to score just once in its past 34 chances inside its opponent's 20-yard line. Thirty-one of those scores have been touchdowns, extending a remarkable turnaround from the first part of the season, when red-zone deficiencies plagued the Midshipmen.
Army, meantime, is coming off a 27-3 loss to Notre Dame, one of three common opponents for both service academies this season (Navy had an easy time with the Fighting Irish in a 35-17 win on Oct. 23). The others were Air Force and Duke. The Midshipmen lost both those games, and the Black Knights split. Army has lost two of three and has not beaten a team with a winning record. Its losses have been by an average of 11 points, and its two most recent defeats have been by an average of 22 points.
Four of Navy's wins have come against teams with a .500 record or better, and its losses have been by a combined 14 points, including a 17-14 setback against Maryland to open the season in a game in which the Midshipmen were statistically superior in almost every significant category.
"One thing I do expect from [the Black Knights] is they're playing for a purpose just like we are," said Navy safety Wyatt Middleton, a senior co-captain slotted to start his 47th straight game. "They'll bring a good fight. That's a definite. They're going to bring their 'A' game, and they're going to be coming for a fight."