For nearly 75 years, the Navy football team has used this week to prepare for Army in a game that both service academies value winning above any other on the schedule. This year, underscoring a season of firsts for the Midshipmen, that longstanding routine is on hiatus until Monday.
By then, Navy will have faced Temple in the American Athletic Conference championship game, set for Saturday in Annapolis, and be in the peculiar position of having technically played in the postseason with one regular season game left against its archrival.
“When we joined the conference, our goal was to play in this game,” Navy Coach Ken Niumatalolo said. “We knew years in advance because of where the game fell, if we were in the game, we would only have one week to prepare for Army, so we’ve had a plan in place the whole season to make sure we can be ready for the championship game and also get ready for Army to the best of our ability.
“It’s a good problem. We’re grateful to have that problem.”
The Midshipmen reached this uncharted point after claiming the AAC West Division outright for the first time. Last season, Navy, debuting in a conference following 134 years as an independent, shared the division title with Houston. The Cougars wound up representing the West in the AAC final based on winning head-to-head.
This year, Navy (9-2, 7-1) defeated then-No. 6 Houston, 46-40, on Oct. 8 to trigger one of its most prolific offensive stretches in program history.
In the month of November, for instance, the Midshipmen led major college football in scoring offense, with 52.8 points per game. In victories over East Carolina, 66-31, and Southern Methodist, 75-31, Navy compiled its most combined total yards of offense (1,193) and points ever in back-to-back games.
With three games left, the Midshipmen are on pace to set season records in total yards and points; through 11 games, they have 5,170 and 459, respectively. The 2007 team, in the final season under Paul Johnson, owns both current marks: 5,773 yards and 511 points.
“We’re operating at a high level,” Niumatalolo said.
The statistics are all the more staggering given that a backup emerged to direct the triple-option offense. Former third-stringer Will Worth took over at quarterback when Tago Smith tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee in the opener. Worth, a senior, had been behind Keenan Reynolds and Smith on the depth chart for the first three years of his career.
Worth leads the country in rushing touchdowns (25) and is six behind the school record Reynolds set in 2013. He has rushed for at least 100 yards in seven consecutive games , matching Brian Madden for the most in Midshipmen history. His eight games overall with 100 rushing yards this season also are tied for first with, among others, Reynolds and Napoleon McCallum.
With a passer rating of 179, Worth has a chance to set the school’s single-season mark in that category as well. Roger Staubach’s 168.6 rating in 1962 is first all-time at Navy, with Reynolds next at 162.1, set last year.
“Since we joined the conference, we write all these things out, and it’s win the CIC, win the conference, go to a big bowl,” Worth said. “It’s right at our fingertips now, and we’ve just got to go out and play ball.”
While Air Force already has claimed the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy for this year, the Midshipmen remain in the mix not just for a conference title but also perhaps a berth in the Cotton Bowl. The last time Navy played in that game was in 1963, during Staubach’s Heisman Trophy-winning season.
Navy is 19th in the latest College Football Playoff rankings, two behind undefeated Western Michigan. Those two are the highest-ranked schools from the Group of Five, as the leagues outside the top-tier Power Five are collectively called, entering this weekend; the top conference champion out of those teams receives an automatic bid to the Cotton Bowl this season.
Even if Navy and Western Michigan both win Saturday, the Midshipmen in theory could leapfrog the Mid-American Conference Broncos in the rankings next week by beating Army.
The College Football Playoff committee has said it would wait until Dec. 10 to reveal the Group of Five bid if it determines that the outcome of Army-Navy would have an impact.
“We were thinking about that earlier,” Navy linebacker Micah Thomas said. “Army has three weeks to prepare. We have a week, but that has its perks. If we’re coming in one week, we’re still rolling, playing our game, having fun, we don’t have time to overthink.
“But we are used to playing the triple option by now. We throw a little Army stuff in there, but we’re focused on Temple and getting the conference championship.”
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