The only Football Bowl Subdivision matchup this weekend pits Army (2-9) against No. 21 Navy (9-2), in what some consider to be the “biggest rivalry in sports.”
What began 125 years ago on The Plain at West Point and was once paused for five years following a secret Cabinet meeting held by President Grover Cleveland in February 1894, has ballooned into a matchup that thousands of military members mark on their calendars.
The Midshipmen unquestionably hold a substantial advantage over the Black Knights: Navy has won 13 consecutive meetings against Army and Coach Ken Niumatalolo has never lost in the series; the Midshipmen enter the matchup ranked and are looking for a 10-win campaign while Army hasn’t won nine games total over the past three seasons; Navy puts up more than 37 points per contest, Army doesn’t put up 23.
“I am sick of hearing [about] The Streak,” said Army junior linebacker Jeremy Timpf, a co-captain for the Black Knights, “so we’re going try to do something to change that.”
While there’s a boatload of evidence to suggest Navy will waltz to a 14th consecutive win over its arch rival, Army could earn its third win of the season if it’s able to win the third-down battle on both sides of the ball.
Behind quarterback Keenan Reynolds, who governs the team’s triple-option attack, Navy ranks fourth in the country in third-down offense, converting 51 percent of its opportunities. Most of those conversions come on the ground, seeing as Navy averages more than 57 rushing attempts and fewer than nine passing attempts per contest.
However, while Navy often dominates the third-down battle, in its two losses — to Notre Dame and Houston—Niumatalolo’s outfit converted a combined 6 of 22 third downs, 24 percentage points below its season average.
Much of what makes Navy’s offense efficient is Reynolds’s ability to limit turnovers and keep self-inflicted penalties to a minimum.
Reynolds is “as valuable to his team as anybody in the country,” Army Coach Jeff Monken said this week.
Few could argue that Reynolds isn’t doing his part: The Midshipmen have committed the fewest turnovers (seven) and penalties (35) of any team in the country. However, Navy had four turnovers — more than half of the team’s season total — in its two losses.
Navy is more likely to take to the air on third down if there’s a considerable distance between the line of scrimmage and the first-down marker. But Navy’s avoidance of penalties and its 5.71-yards-per-carry average means it is rarely in third-and-long situations. While Navy isn’t turnover-prone and seldom has difficulty generating yards in its triple-option scheme, Army will have more options to produce turnovers if it can squelch the sure-to-be rushing plays on first and second downs, which would put Reynolds in a passing situation.
Army ranks 102nd in third-down defense, not exactly what the team would consider an advantage heading into the matchup. For Monken’s squad to have a chance, it will need to get its defense off the field when given the chance or run the risk of having Navy put the game to bed early.
In Army’s wins it held Eastern Michigan and Bucknell to a ghastly third-down conversion rate of 22.7 percent. In losses, as is mostly the case nationwide, the rate is considerably higher: 47.6 percent.
The Black Knights, like the Midshipmen, are formidable on third-down offensive situations, converting 45 percent of their opportunities. But the team rarely racks up first downs, which is why a majority of the team’s drives stall.
Behind an offense that has the fewest plays of 10 yards or more of any team nationally, an inability to move the chains, particularly on third downs, would spell doom for the team’s chances Saturday.