The undefeated Navy football team had a bye this past weekend, meaning in some cases additional time for studying or perhaps catching up on precious sleep. Other players gathered in front of their televisions to watch their service academy counterparts, with both Air Force and Army playing on Saturday night.
By the time the Falcons had outlasted Utah State, it was well past 1 a.m. on Sunday in Annapolis. Hours earlier, the Black Knights had been unable to preserve a 14-point lead in the fourth quarter in absorbing a disheartening loss to Buffalo in overtime.
Still, heading into the first leg of the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy competition, service academy football overall is at its most robust level in decades. Navy and Air Force, for instance, face one another on Saturday for the first time in series history with both unbeaten. Army, meantime, is off to its best start since 2010.
This year also marked the first time that all three academies opened 3-0.
“It’s really cool to see three institutions where it’s more than just about football,” Midshipmen Coach Ken Niumatalolo said. “It’s actually more than even just about the education. It stands for more than that. I think it symbolizes a lot of things that are great about our country.”
Navy (3-0) enters its game against Air Force (3-0) undefeated for a second consecutive year. It also was undefeated immediately prior to facing the Falcons in 2004 as well as in 1978 and ’79, both of those times under George Welsh. The Midshipmen’s wins this season have come against lower-division Fordham and American Athletic Conference opponents Connecticut and Tulane .
“The season’s early, so hopefully all three of us can continue to be successful,” Niumatalolo said, “because it’s a long year.”
Navy has been the class of the service academies since the program began running the triple option in 2002 under Paul Johnson. Over that period, the Midshipmen won the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy 10 times, including a record seven in a row beginning in 2003. They have won the CIC five of eight times, including three of the last four, since Niumatalolo took over in 2008.
One year before that, Coach Troy Calhoun became head coach at Air Force, replacing the legendary Fisher DeBerry. The Falcons have been to a bowl game every season except two under Calhoun, who has won at least eight games in six of nine years. The only major blemish was a 2-10 record in 2013.
“I love it. I absolutely love it,” Calhoun said of Navy, Air Force and Army starting fast. “I think it’s good for college football. I know college football as an enterprise is trying to go one direction. However, I think what’s really, really cool is just the ethos and the soul of the academies, and yet still the belief of the possibility to still have competitive football teams.”
Army (3-1) has remained in line for only its third winning season in 20 years despite the emotional toll from the tragic death of a teammate. Sophomore cornerback Brandon Jackson was killed in a one-car accident roughly 20 miles south of the West Point campus during the early morning hours of Sept. 11.
Jackson, 20, had played 14 games before the crash that took place the day after the Black Knights had beaten Rice, 31-14, at Michie Stadium in the team’s home opener.
Funeral services were held the following Wednesday in Queens, where Jackson spent much of his youth. Three days later, Army defeated Texas-El Paso, 66-14, to move to 3-0 for the first time since 1996.
“I think it’s important to maintain an even keel about where we’re at in terms of our record,” Army Coach Jeff Monken said. “There are too many examples of teams who start out really well as we have and peter out. And there are other teams who don’t start as strong, but finish the year strong.
“What we’ve got to do is not be satisfied with just winning, but trying playing our best and trying to be the best that we can be individually.”