Sim­i­lar skills, same am­bi­tion

Ri­valry be­tween Mids and Fal­cons marked by par­ity of abil­ity, mu­tual re­spect

Baltimore Sun - - COLLEGE FOOTBALL - By Bill Wag­ner

COLORADO SPRINGS, COLO. — They say fa­mil­iar­ity breeds con­tempt. In the case of Navy and Air Force foot­ball, it breeds re­spect.

The Mid­ship­men and the Fal­cons have de­vel­oped a keen ri­valry over the past decade and a half, but it is rooted in mu­tual es­teem.

Air Force has fielded a win­ning pro­gram for the bet­ter part of three decades, be­gin­ning shortly af­ter Fisher DeBerry be­came coach in 1984. Navy is in the midst of the most suc­cess­ful era in pro­gram his­tory, with win­ning records in 12 of the past 13 sea­sons.

Much of what Navy’s Ken Ni­u­mat­alolo and Air Force’s Troy Cal­houn do over the course of each year is about win­ning their an­nual matchup. The win­ner of this ser­vice academy show­down has gone on to win the Com­man­der-in-Chief’s Tro­phy each of the past 19 sea­sons.

“I have tremen­dous re­spect for Coach Cal­houn and his staff. I have great re­spect for the Air Force pro­gram,” Ni­u­mat­alolo said. “It’s a very good foot­ball pro­gram that has won a ton of games over the years.”

Cal­houn seemed stunned when a re­porter at his weekly news con­fer­ence asked whether he thought Navy might look past Air Force to next Satur­day’s cru­cial Amer­i­can Ath­letic Con­fer­ence game against No. 6 Hous­ton.

“Oh, I don’t think so,” Cal­houn said. “Just the amount of re­spect that’s in­volved — not only with the foot­ball pro­grams, but the in­sti­tu­tion as well — I don’t think that would hap­pen.”

To­day’s meet­ing is the ninth be­tween Cal­houn and Ni­u­mat­alolo. Cal­houn, in his 10th sea­son with the Fal­cons, is 70-50 all time at the school. Ni­u­mat­alolo, in his ninth sea­son, is the Mids’ all-time win­ningest coach (71-37).

“I try to have some ap­pre­ci­a­tion for some of the his­tory and en­coun­ters that have hap­pened” be­tween the schools, Cal­houn said. “We have the ut­most re­spect for their en­tire pro­gram and the job they do. Cer­tainly, Kenny and his staff do a fan­tas­tic job.”

Both pro­grams have six coaches who have been on staff for at least 10 years — the most of any Foot­ball Bowl Sub­di­vi­sion school. Navy and Air Force as­sis­tants run into one an­other on the re­cruit­ing trail all the time, usu­ally be­cause they’re tar­get­ing the same prospect.

In many cases, the schools’ re­cruits chose one ser­vice academy over the other.

“It’s just real com­pet­i­tive. They want to beat us; we want to beat them. We see each “It’s just real com­pet­i­tive,” Navy coach Ken Ni­u­mat­alolo said of fac­ing Air Force. “They want to beat us; we want to beat them.” other all the time in re­cruit­ing,” Ni­u­mat­alolo said. They’re good coaches and good peo­ple. They have some re­ally good guys on their staff. It’s not about me or Troy. It’s about our play­ers and our pro­gram.”

DeBerry built Air Force into a con­sis­tent win­ner by in­stalling an op­tion of­fense. Cal­houn has con­tin­ued that tra­di­tion, al­though the Fal­cons have be­come a bit more di­verse dur­ing his ten­ure.

When Navy sought to re­build its strug­gling pro­gram, it fol­lowed suit by go­ing the op­tion route. Ath­letic direc­tor Chet Glad­chuk hired the na­tion’s fore­most tripleop­tion prac­ti­tioner, Paul John­son, and af­ter John­son de­parted for Ge­or­gia Tech, Ni­u­mat­alolo suc­ceeded his men­tor.

Of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Ivin Jasper, an­other long­time pupil of John­son’s, has taken a page out of Air Force’s play­book by adding wrin­kles to the Mids at­tack over the past nine years to make the team less predictable.

But Navy and Air Force re­main true to their foun­da­tion for suc­cess. Both ser­vice acad­e­mies have long ranked among the na­tional lead­ers in rush­ing of­fense, and that is the case again this sea­son: The Fal­cons are sec­ond (359.3 yards per game) and the Mids fourth (316.3).

Be­cause their play­ers see it all the time in prac­tice, Navy and Air Force are quite adept at de­fend­ing the op­tion. Yards and points tend to be at a pre­mium in the game.

“These teams are about the same size up front on both sides of the ball. That’s why they al­ways say this game is go­ing to be a fair fight,” Jasper said. “You’ve got a bunch of guys on both sides who are go­ing to play hard. It’s go­ing to be a very tough, phys­i­cal game. There will be no op­tion fac­tor, no guys los­ing track of the ball.”

In Nate Romine, Air Force has a quar­ter­back who has ex­pe­ri­ence play­ing in ser­vice academy games. He started against Army and Navy as a sopho­more in 2014.

“Just a re­ally good quar­ter­back — can throw the ball real well and is a good runner,” Navy de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Dale Pehrson said. “We played him a cou­ple years ago, so we know a lit­tle bit about him. Like all older guys, he’s run­ning the show pretty well.”

Navy quar­ter­back Will Worth will be mak­ing his ri­valry de­but on the road in a hos­tile en­vi­ron­ment. Ni­u­mat­alolo and Jasper be­lieve Worth took a ma­jor step for­ward Sept. 17 when he led a gamewin­ning touch­down drive late in the fourth quar­ter against Tu­lane.

“I think two weeks ago against Tu­lane, that fi­nal drive was Will. Our guys ral­lied around him,” Ni­u­mat­alolo said. “He’s a tough, hard-nosed kid, and I think our play­ers have em­braced his per­son­al­ity.”

Worth broke loose on an op­tion keeper for a ca­reer-long 31-yard run that set up his 1-yard plunge into the end zone. He fin­ished with a ca­reer-best 113 rush­ing yards against the Green Wave.

“On the last drive of the game, Will put the team on his back. He took us down the field and we scored. For me, that was the turn­ing point for him,” Jasper said. “I think the team be­lieves in him now. They know he can get it done. He’s their leader. Now we just have to build on that and keep it go­ing for the rest of the sea­son.”

Navy has got­ten min­i­mal pro­duc­tion from the full­back po­si­tion over the past two games and would like to see that change. Starter Chris High ran for a ca­reer-high 176 yards in the sea­son opener against Ford­ham but com­bined for just 87 in wins against Con­necti­cut and Tu­lane. Backup Shawn White has 23 rush­ing yards.

“We have to find a way to get the full­back go­ing. We have two good ones and we need them to play well in this game,” Jasper said. “We also have to get the ball on the perime­ter into our play­mak­ers’ hands. We also have to find some­thing through the air. Last year, we were able to make some plays in the pass­ing game, and that was a big key.”

Last sea­son, Mids quar­ter­back Keenan Reynolds soft­ened the Fal­cons de­fense by pass­ing for 117 yards. Wide re­ceiver Jamir Till­man, who has nine re­cep­tions for 143 yards through three games, could play a crit­i­cal role.

Air Force has a dan­ger­ous re­ceiv­ing weapon of its own in Jalen Robinette, who is av­er­ag­ing 20 yards per catch.

“The two are al­most mir­ror im­ages of each other,” Pehrson said of Robinette and Till­man. “They both go up and get the ball, they ad­just in the air and make fan­tas­tic catches.”

The Fal­cons have sev­eral other skill po­si­tion stand­outs fa­mil­iar to the Mids, in­clud­ing run­ning back Ja­cobi Owens (team-high 203 rush­ing yards). D.J. John­son (198 yards) and Shayne Dav­ern (138) form a po­tent tan­dem at full­back.

“They’ve got two big guys that both run hard. I’ve been very im­pressed with how tough those full­backs are,” Pehrson said. “Across the board, they look a lot like us.”

PAUL W. GILLE­SPIE/BAL­TI­MORE SUN ME­DIA GROUP

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