Similar skills, same ambition
Rivalry between Mids and Falcons marked by parity of ability, mutual respect
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.”