Army still went on to win, 17-10, its third straight victory in the historic series. But for a moment, despite Navy’s rotating trio of quarterbacks, its wobbly offensive line and its sluggish defense, the Midshipmen were threatening.
This year, Army’s and Navy’s positions are reversed. Navy (9-2) heads to Lincoln Financial Field on Saturday for the 120th installment of Army-Navy on the back of an impressive about-face that the Mids owe in large part to a revitalized defense under first-year coordinator Brian Newberry and to Perry, who leads the team with 136.4 rushing yards per game and 19 rushing touchdowns.
The Mids, No. 21 in the Associated Press poll and No. 23 in the College Football Playoff rankings, are ranked entering the game for the first time since 2015.
Army (5-7) arrives in Philadelphia beat up, particularly at quarterback and on the offensive line, but with all of its focus directed toward extending its winning streak in the series.
“It’s completely opposite,” Monken said last week in Philadelphia at the rivalry’s annual pregame press event. “Completely.”
Last year’s close win was no anomaly in recent Army-Navy game history: The past five meetings have been decided by seven points or fewer.
The coin-flip nature of the rivalry in recent years is something both sides are well aware of, but Monken is reminding his players of the 2018 game specifically to instill confidence ahead of Saturday’s bout. And Niumatalolo is doing it to shield his players from complacency.
“We had a chance to beat them last year, you know?” Niumatalolo said. “So I always remind our guys: ‘We’re having a good season, they’re a little bit down, and that game last year could’ve gone either way. You’ve got to remember that it’s still Army. They’re still going to come out fighting and give it everything they have.’ ”
There’s also an added edge to this year’s contest. Stakes for the Army-Navy game are always steep, but the Black Knights’ winning streak provides extra motivation for this year’s seniors on both sides of the rivalry.
Army hasn’t held a winning streak this long since the 1990s, when it won every matchup from 1992 to 1996. A win Saturday would go a long way toward salvaging a subpar season.
“To have a senior class that’s sitting 3-0 against Navy to have an opportunity to go 4-0 is — that would be a great way to finish their careers after a season where … it’s been disappointing,” Monken said.
For Navy’s senior class, a win would signify a return to glory. Navy won the rivalry game every year between 2002 and 2015, and a victory this time around, after this successful season, would cement it as the class that reversed Navy’s recent slippage. It would also make Niumatalolo the winningest coach in Army-Navy game history.
The Mids’ four senior captains are trying not to think too much about their legacy ahead of Saturday. But that’s the trick of the Army-Navy game — it’s important to embrace the grandeur, all of the pomp and circumstance and gild that makes the rivalry what it is.
“You go in too loose, you’ll get hit in the lips,” senior center Ford Higgins said. "As much as you want to just focus on what’s at hand and not worry about stuff like that, it’s the reality of it. It’s the legacy of every team that’s come here. Maybe the first question you get is, ‘Did you guys beat Army?’ ”
To defeat the Black Knights, Navy’s defense will have to stop quarterback Kelvin Hopkins Jr. The senior has had a down year, rushing for 64.2 yards per game and throwing for an average of 51.8 yards, but Hopkins has experience beating the Mids. He ran for both of Army’s touchdowns last year.
The Black Knights will have to contend with Navy’s more dynamic defensive scheme and a well-rested Perry. But ask both teams what the Army-Navy game comes down to, and both say schemes and personnel matter little when two teams know each other so well.
It’s execution that counts when triple-option teams meet — and when the nerves that accompany such a high-pressure game might cause a player to forget an assignment or make the wrong decision.
“It comes down to ‘want to’ and execution,” Navy senior outside linebacker Nizaire Cromartie said. “Each game is usually 50 snaps on each side, where you’re coming from a team like [Central Florida] and they might give you 80, 90 snaps in a game. . . . It’s who is going to execute every single time you’re out on that field, and that’s it. And you can find yourself just being erased with the past with all the other guys who lost — or you can find yourself being that class that turned the whole program around and came back and beat Army.”
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