Ranked in Top 25 af­ter 22 years, surg­ing Army 7-point fa­vorite vs. Navy

Orlando Sentinel - - SPORTS WEEKEND - By Dan Gelston

PHILADEL­PHIA — A gen­eral’s pep talk about ac­tual life-and­death bat­tles emerged as a driv­ing force this sea­son for the Army foot­ball team.

In the Army, the gen­eral you win or you die.

Far more con­se­quen­tial than brag­ging rights on the foot­ball field but use­ful for a team that no longer ends its sea­son against Navy.

“It is dra­matic,” team cap­tain Cole Chris­tiansen said. “But I think it’s helped us a lot.”

Chris­tiansen has been part of Army’s turn­around from peren­nial los­ing pro­gram to its lofty sta­tus to­day: ranked in the AP Top 25 for the first time since 1996, on a se­v­engame win­ning streak, headed to a bowl game and a seven-point fa­vorite in Satur­day’s 119th meet­ing against Navy.

The Army-Navy ri­valry has of­ten been known as pa­tri­otic — and for years, one of the most lop­sided in sports. Navy hooked an an­chor to the Com­man­der-inChief’s Tro­phy with a se­ries-best 14-game win­ning streak from 2002-2015.

The No. 22 Black Knights (9-2) are on top these days, win­ners of two straight in the se­ries headed into Satur­day’s game at Lin­coln Fi­nan­cial Field, home of the Su­per Bowl cham­pion Philadel­phia Ea­gles. Last sea­son’s game was an said, in­stant clas­sic: Ben­nett Moehring nar­rowly missed a 48-yard field goal in the snow on the fi­nal play and Army held off Navy 14-13 to win the CIC Tro­phy for the first time since 1996. Navy leads 60-51-7. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump will of­fi­ci­ate the coin toss Satur­day in his first at­tended Army-Navy game as pres­i­dent, where he’s also ex­pected to make an an­nounce­ment con­cern­ing the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Trump was at the 2016 game as pres­i­dent-elect. He will be the 10th sit­ting pres­i­dent to at­tend, a tra­di­tion that be­gan with Theodore Roo­sevelt in 1901. Pres­i­dents, by cus­tom, sit on the Army side of the sta­dium for one half and the Navy side for the other.

If his­tory holds, Trump will likely see a close call: the last three games have been de­cided by a to­tal of 9 points and only once since 2010 has a team won by more than a touch­down.

“I feel a great sense of re­spon­si­bil­ity to make sure we win,” Army coach Jeff Monken said. “We’ve won some close games and we didn’t win some of those the first cou­ple of years I was there.”

Navy (3-9) will have its first los­ing sea­son since 2002 and won just two games in its fourth sea­son in the Amer­i­can Ath­letic Con­fer­ence.

“Peo­ple ask what it was like to have the streak. The streak doesn’t mat­ter,” Navy coach Ken Ni­u­mat­alolo said. “Just like the loss doesn’t mat­ter. The only thing that mat­ters is [Satur­day].”

Chris­tiansen, a junior line­backer, said Monken has built Army into win­ners.

“The men­tal­ity of the teams be­fore us vs. what it is now, we just don’t want to lose,” Chris­tiansen said.

Army will play Hous­ton in the Armed Forces Bowl and was ranked for the first time in 22 years. But for the up­per class­men who ex­pe­ri­enced each mile­stone, no thrill has com­pared to snap­ping the mis­er­able los­ing streak to Navy in 2016.

“The Top 25, we were ex­cited the day we found out we were in,” Chris­tiansen said. “But my fresh­man year, that was prob­a­bly the coolest thing. I’ve never seen a larger group of peo­ple from across the coun­try get so ex­cited about one event. We were get­ting let­ters and emails and calls from old grads. Peo­ple that are sta­tioned in Afghanistan were call­ing us. It was pretty spe­cial.”

Some other things to note about the Army-Navy game:

Tough sched­ule: Navy lost seven straight games, its long­est los­ing streak since 2011. In­cluded in that stretch were losses to five teams (Tem­ple, Hous­ton, Notre Dame, Cincin­nati, UCF) play­ing in bowl games.

“This is def­i­nitely the tough­est sched­ule since I’ve been here and I think peo­ple just quickly gloss over that,” Ni­u­mat­alolo said. “It’s OK, though. They ask you to win. I know [ath­letic di­rec­tor] Chet [Glad­chuk] doesn’t want to hear that. He says it’s ex­cuses. You’ve got to win. But trav­el­ing half­way across the world to start the first game [at Hawaii], there are just so many fac­tors.”

Navy joined the AAC in 2015 and has watched as pro­grams like UCF emerged to make the con­fer­ence per­haps the best out­side the Power Five.

“Ev­ery­body in our league is try­ing to be the next per­son when ex­pan­sion hap­pens,” Ni­u­mat­alolo said. “‘Hey, look at us. Come pick us. We’ve got the fa­cil­i­ties.’ Ev­ery­body’s ramped their game up, to their credit.”

Thirsty for a win: Chris­tiansen has had a change of heart af­ter once telling his mother he wouldn’t join the mil­i­tary.

“There’s noth­ing else in the world that I want to do other than serve the coun­try,” Chris­tiansen said. “They talk about drink­ing the Kool-Aid. I’ve been on a dou­ble IV of the Kool-Aid since I got here.”

The gen­eral’s pep talk has been part of that.

“The mind­set is, you win or you die,” he said. “When we go out on Satur­days, it’s pretty tough to beat a bunch of guys that would rather die than lose.”

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