ARMY-NAVY PREVIEW: BRINGING A NATION BACK TOGETHER FOR AT LEAST ONE DAY
There is a reason why college football shuts down this weekend to make way–and honor–one game, Army-Navy.
It is not just any football game. This contest is pure Americana and spurs a unique level of patriotic spirit for all Americans, sports fans or not.
The 118th Army-Navy takes place Saturday at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia at 3:00 PM on CBS.
Navy owns a 60-50-7 lead in the series. Army halted Navy’s 14-game winning streak last year when the Black Knights came away with a 21-17 win in Baltimore.
This is a game that has survived two world wars, numerous other conflicts, 21 presidents and even disco.
The players who compete in the game are aware of the prestige and magnitude of the competition. Literally every American is either watching or locked into the game om some way stateside or around the globe.
“It’s awesome,” said Army Team Captain John Voit, a defensive lineman. “Army-Navy, its bigger than the game itself. You’re not just playing for Army-Navy, your’re playing for the whole military organization…that’s what is so cool about this game.”
Navy slot running back and Team Captain Darryl Bonner (60 carries, 392 yards, 2 TDs, seven catches 182 yards, one TD) said the Army-Navy game played a big part in his decision to go to a Service Academy.
“Oh yeah, this is definitely one of the things you notice in the recruiting stage when you come out of high school, is the Army-Navy game,” Bonner said. “It’s the game where all the fans come to whether it’s in Baltimore or Philly, Just all the camaraderie, the honor it is to play in that game, representing America, it’s just a great experience.”
Navy is the glamour program of the two.
There is no bigger name than Roger Staubach AKA “Roger the Dodger”, “Captain America” and “Captain Comeback.”
Staubach attended the U.S. Naval Academy where he won the 1963 Heisman Trophy, and after graduation he served in the U.S. Navy, including a tour of duty in Vietnam. Staubach joined the Dallas Cowboys in 1969, and played for 11 seasons for “America’s Team.”
He led the team to the Super Bowl five times, four as the starting quarterback.
Most recently it was quarterback Keenan Reynolds, who played for Navy from 2012-15. He finished his career with an NCAA Division I record 88 career touchdowns and an NCAA FBS record 4,559 rushing yards by a quarterback.
Army’s last alumni player with a national profile is linebacker Andrew Rodriguez who played for Army 2009-11. Rodriguez started in twelve games as a sophomore for the Black Knights. Prior to his junior season, he suffered a serious back injury which caused him to miss the rest of the season but made a comeback for his senior year, voted captain by his teammates. He won the 2011 James E. Sullivan Award and the William V. Campbell Trophy.
This year the Black Knights (8-3) have a legitimate star in quarterback Ahmad Bradshaw who is No. 10 in the FBS with 1,472 yards rushing on 189 carries and 11 touchdowns.
Navy (6-5) is led by quarterback Zach Abey who is No. 8 in the FBS in yards per game with 132.2. The senior has 14 touchdowns
Until 2016, Army struggled for a long time. In 1996, Army went 10-2. Since then the Black nights had just one winning season in 2010 when they were 7-6. In 2016 head coach Jeff Monken, in just his third season, went 8-5, finally breaking the losing streak against Navy.
Voit talked about the change in the program for the better.
“When I came in a freshman we went 4-8, my sophomore year 2-10,” said Voit who has 27 tackles on the season. “I was the first class with Coach Monken. As my class has progressed at the Academy, the way that the culture has changed from my freshman year to now it’s kind of been unreal. I think that’s had a huge impact every day at practice, just getting after it. Just having a focused discipline mentality. It’s really helped us. I think that’s a big factor in this year’s success.”
Because of Navy’s success overall, the Mids actually had their own television reality-type show on “Showtime.”
Voit was asked if that bothered him.
“That’s alright. Navy’s Navy,” Voit said. “They’ve had a lot of success over the past 20 years. At West Point, we’re kind of toughed up, the Hudson Valley of New York…se we kind of like it that way, kind of away from the media. I don’t mind it at all. I think having that stuff is great and all, but I think it’s nice to be secluded and more by yourself with your own team playing every week and getting by week-by-week.”
Did he watch any episodes?
“I did, I did,” Voit said. “I watched one episode, I wanted to see what it was all about. Obviously Showtime coming to your school, it’s got to be pretty cool. “I’m not surprised. It’s definitely cool.”
Navy has had winning seasons 13 out of the last 14 years. After a 5-0 start this year, The Midshipmen, mostly becasue of injuries in particular to Abey, lost five of its last six games. Bonner said they can’t dwell on what happened.
“We, actually have moved past that for the most part now,” Bonner said. “Because we can’t change what happened. Looking back on it we can second guess or think about what we’ve done, but honestly all we’re focused on right now is the next game, and that’s Army.”
For years Army suffered in the trenches. The Black Knight always played hard but lacked the size to hang with the other D-1 programs.
But Monken has improved the lines, particularly on offense. The coach said it has made a difference.
“It is and that is why we’re having success this year.” Monken said. “We have a lot of veterans on the offensive line and I think that’s been a big difference.”
Voit said it wasn’t so much about size, but a better attitude.
“The one thing coach always talks about is toughness,” Voit said. “Same for our defensive coordinator, Coach (Jay) Bateman, he’s all about toughness, discipline and that mentality. I think that’s helped us big. We’re going to go out there and be the biggest defense like other programs, we’re just not especially with out training and military schedule, but having that edge, that toughness edge and be able to go after it play by play, that’s been the biggest factor for us and stop offenses this year.”
Army has improved but has not won the Commander-in-chief’s Trophy since 1996. Voit talked about the Black Knights bringing it back to West Point.
“It would mean everything,” Voit said. “To bring that CIC trophy home just would mean everything to this team, this program and for the Army as a whole organization in general. And for this team to leave the legacy it wants to leave.”
The Navy last won the CIC trophy in 2015.
This game will be tough for Navy. They will have to deal with a triple-option attack not many teams have figured out this year. And Bradshaw is the real deal.
“They are having a great season,” Bonner said, “The keys to the game are to take care of the football, they one of the most important things. On defense, playing fast and having our eyes right. At then end of the day, it’s going to come down to who’s tougher and who maked the least amount of mistakes.”
Both acknowleded the country is divided politically and socially. Both think the Army-Navy game can bring America together for at least one afternoon.
“I believe so,” Bonner said. “I believe sports is supposed to be the stage for that, bring everybody together for that. Not just for sports game, it’s the Army Navy football It’s a game between two of America’s Academies, It’s a great experience. I hope and I think it will bring everyone together, at least for one Saturday.”
Voit said the same.
“I’m totally with you, I don’t see why not,” Voit said. “You’ve got two teams, a bunch of guys who signed a contract to serve their country and that’s going to be our job for the next five years. Obviously bringing the country together…it would be great, our goal would be to that but focus is on playing the game.” *
Prediction: Army 27, Navy 24
Follow Al Thompson on Twitter @thompsoniii