Members of the Navy football team are used to managing obligations unlike those of athletes at non-service academy schools. They fit in practice around rigorous class loads and military exercises, and yet the Midshipmen have produced winning records in 10 of the last 11 years and, most importantly to them, have beaten Army a series-record 11 consecutive times.
But preparation for this year’s game against their most bitter rival presents an unprecedented challenge for Coach Ken Niumatalolo and his staff, because for the first time final exams are taking place in the week leading up to the game’s kickoff Saturday afternoon at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia.
That means Niumatalolo has had to juggle his regular practice schedule while players are trying to balance the demands of the academy’s strict academic requirements with an exhaustive game plan for the Black Knights.
“This week is unique preparing for our biggest game and having finals,” Niumatalolo said. “This is hard. I mean we’ve been planning for a couple weeks now trying to get in practice times that don’t conflict with any exams. In all my 16 years of being here, this is the hardest we’re going to have, schedule-wise, getting ready for Army.”
At least the Midshipmen are getting healthier for the 114th installment of one of the most storied rivalries in college football. Niumatalolo did his part to facilitate the recovery process by allowing players to take four days off during Thanksgiving instead of keeping them in Annapolis to practice.
The decision came on the heels of Navy’s 58-52, triple-overtime win at San Jose State, in which Keenan Reynolds established an NCAA single-game record for quarterbacks by rushing for seven touchdowns, including the game-winner. The sophomore tweaked his ankle late in the game and was in a walking boot two days after coming back from the West Coast.
Niumatalolo indicated the boot was only a precaution and that Reynolds will play against Army. Reynolds, who is one rushing touchdown from matching the single-season FBS record by a quarterback, practiced without the boot last week and pronounced himself ready to go.
“You’ve just got to accept it and move on, focus on your exams, and when it comes time to practice and prepare, you’ve got to focus on that,” Reynolds said. “So we understand the challenge ahead of us and we understand it’s a tough predicament to be in, but we’re not in the business of making excuses and complaining about things.”
The Midshipmen also are eagerly anticipating the return of fullbacks Noah Copeland and Chris Swain. Both missed the last two games with injuries, requiring expanded duties for junior Quinton Singleton, who became the starter, as well as sophomore Quentin Ezell and freshman Shawn White.
Center Tanner Fleming has been practicing in full pads after sitting out against San Jose State, and nose guard Bernie Sarra is out of a cast and in line to play for the first time since Nov. 2.
Senior co-captain Matt Aiken isn’t as fortunate. The starting wide receiver tore his ACL against the Spartans and will require surgery that will keep him out of the lineup against Army. Aiken has elected to postpone the procedure until after the regular season in order to be able to walk onto the field for the coin toss.
“I think throughout our season we go through so many tribulations, ups and downs and things like that, and I think that’s kind of what molds how we prepare for the end of the season as well,” said Aiken, who is among the few players in program history to earn four varsity letters. “We just kind of take into account how we did it during the season and when we’re down try to pick ourselves back up.”