Navy faces Army to­day

Hype, build-up for Army-Navy cul­mi­nates at 3:10 this af­ter­noon

The Capital - - FRONT PAGE - By Bill Wag­ner bwag­[email protected]

PHILADEL­PHIA – All the hype be­gins about two weeks be­fore­hand, of­fi­cially kick­ing off this year with the Army-Navy me­dia event and lun­cheon held at Lin­coln Fi­nan­cial Field on Nov. 28.

From that day for­ward there are hun­dreds of sto­ries writ­ten or broad­cast by me­dia out­lets all over the coun­try.

Ex­cite­ment reaches a fevered pitch dur­ing game week with pep ral­lies on both cam­puses and a wide va­ri­ety of spe­cial events here in Philadel­phia, which will be host­ing the Army-Navy foot­ball game for the 88th time.

The Mid­ship­men and Black Knights ar­rived at their re­spec­tive team ho­tels on Thurs­day night and con­ducted walk-through prac­tices at Lin­coln Fi­nan­cial Field on Fri­day af­ter­noon.

A year’s worth of an­tic­i­pa­tion and build-up cul­mi­nates on Satur­day at pre­cisely 3:10 p.m. when the 119th Army-Navy foot­ball game kicks off in front of a fren­zied sell­out crowd that will in­clude the en­tire Corps of Cadets, Bri­gade of Mid­ship­men and Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump.

By that point, Navy head coach Ken Ni­u­mat­alolo will have told his team a hun­dred times that “this game is won be­tween the white lines.” Army head coach Jeff Monken will have re­peat­edly in­formed his troops that “this game will not be won on emo­tion; it will be won with ex­e­cu­tion.”

No. 23 Army (9-3) en­ters this an­nual show­down ranked in the As­so­ci­ated Press poll for the first time since 1996 and is set to play Hous­ton in the Armed Forces Bowl. A great sea­son filled with tremen­dous ac­com­plish­ments will seem hol­low if the Black Knights can­not beat the Mid­ship­men.

“It’s the pin­na­cle of our sea­son,” Monken said. “It’s the most im­por­tant game of the year. It’s the big­gest game of the year. There are very few ri­val­ries that you can get away with talk­ing about 365 days of the year. But for 365 days of the year at both acad­e­mies, this ri­valry is talked about. We have signs up. It’s a goal of ours and we are look­ing for­ward to the game.”

Mean­while, Navy (3-9) has suf­fered through its worst sea­son since 2002 and did

not earn a bowl berth for just the se­cond time in 16 years. The Mid­ship­men sud­denly find them­selves in the un­en­vi­able po­si­tion of hav­ing to sal­vage a dis­mal cam­paign by up­set­ting their archri­val.

“As tough as this sea­son has been, you can tell there is a dif­fer­ent look in their eyes. They're ex­cited about the op­por­tu­nity,” Ni­u­mat­alolo said. “One game changes ev­ery­thing. That's the way we're look­ing at it. One win can change the whole sea­son.”

Army can claim the cov­eted Com­man­der-in-Chief's Tro­phy for the se­cond con­sec­u­tive sea­son with a win on Satur­day. A loss would mean the Black Knights merely re­tain the tro­phy, a mean­ing­less achieve­ment that sim­ply saves on ship­ping costs.

“Make no mis­take, we want to be the Com­man­der-in-Chief's Tro­phy cham­pi­ons again be­cause that has not been done in a long time at West Point,” said Army line­backer and tri-cap­tain Cole Chris­tiansen.

Ac­tu­ally, Army has never won the CIC Tro­phy two years in a row and has only done so a to­tal of six times since the se­ries was es­tab­lished in 1972.

Bare-knuckle brawl

As soon as hos­til­i­ties com­mence in frigid Philadel­phia, the 68,625 fans in the stands and the mil­lions watch­ing on tele­vi­sion will re­al­ize quickly this ser­vice academy show­down is a bare-knuckle fist fight.

For­mer Navy head coach Paul John­son, whose pres­ence looms large over this ri­valry now that two of his dis­ci­ples stride the op­pos­ing side­lines, rou­tinely said the Army-Navy game is “played in­side a phone booth.”

That is be­cause the ma­jor­ity of of­fen­sive plays will take place be­tween the tack­les. Army and Navy know how to de­fend the triple-op­tion bet­ter than any other team in the coun­try and the in­evitable re­sult is a rock'em, sock'em af­fair in which yards are very hard to come by.

“There is no op­tion fac­tor in this game. Army is very well-coached de­fen­sively and al­ways plays hard,” Navy of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Ivin Jasper said. “We have to be smart and find a way to ex­e­cute in or­der to drive the field. There are not go­ing to be many big plays. You have to take what­ever they give you and just grind it.”

Last sea­son's meet­ing, which Army won 14-13 af­ter Navy kicker Ben­nett Moehring barely missed a 48-yard field goal as time ex­pired, pro­vides a per­fect ex­am­ple. Army had eight pos­ses­sions and ran 50 plays while Navy had seven pos­ses­sions and ran 48 plays. The Mid­ship­men amassed 296 to­tal yards while the Black Knights fin­ished with 241.

“It's go­ing to be a phys­i­cal game. They're a phys­i­cal team, we're a phys­i­cal team. They run the ball, we run the ball. They pos­sess the ball, we pos­sess the ball,” Ni­u­mat­alolo said. “The only rea­son this game lasts long is be­cause of the tele­vi­sion com­mer­cials.”

Monken has Army op­er­at­ing its ver­sion of op­tion of­fense at an ex­tremely high level this sea­son.

Quar­ter­back Kelvin Hop­kins has di­rected an at­tack that ranks se­cond na­tion­ally in rush­ing of­fense with 303 yards per game. The Black Knights do most of their dam­age in­side with full­back Dar­nell Wool­folk (823 yards) and Hop­kins (783 yards) lead­ing the way.

“They've kind of evolved of­fen­sively. I think the power run­ning game, with op­tion el­e­ments mixed in, re­ally suits them,” Ni­u­mat­alolo said. “I think the 2018 ver­sion of Army foot­ball has been four years in the mak­ing. I've been im­pressed with watch­ing how Monk has evolved since he's been at Army.”

Monken was forced to al­ter the of­fense af­ter Army com­mit­ted a whop­ping 42 turnovers dur­ing his first two sea­sons at the helm. He and of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Brent Davis dra­mat­i­cally re­duced the pitch el­e­ment of the triple-op­tion and the Black Knights have com­mit­ted just seven turnovers (four fum­bles, three in­ter­cep­tions) this sea­son.

Army leads the Foot­ball Bowl Sub­di­vi­sion in time of pos­ses­sion, hog­ging the ball for more than 39 min­utes per game. That statis­tic is the by-prod­uct of the Black Knights rank­ing No. 1 na­tion­ally in both third down (100-for-175) and fourth down (30-33) con­ver­sion per­cent­age.

“Army has been very ef­fi­cient and done a good job of stay­ing ahead of the sticks. They'll get three yards on first down and the de­fense will be like ‘Yes, we stopped them.' When­ever that hap­pens, Army is right on track where they want to be,” Ni­u­mat­alolo said.

Se­nior cen­ter Bryce Hol­land, who checks in at 6-foot-2 and 295 pounds, is the key player up front for Army and teams with guards Jax­son Deaton (6-4, 310) and Pe­tyon Reeder (6-6, 290) to con­trol the in­te­rior. Ju­nior nose guard Jack­son Pittman (6-3, 309) must do a cred­i­ble job of hold­ing the point of at­tack for Navy.

“I think their of­fen­sive line comes off the ball low and hard. It's a real tough group and the cen­ter, in par­tic­u­lar, is a very good player,” Pehrson said. “We've got to match their phys­i­cal­ity across the board. We need to play with low pads and need to find a way to knock them back.”

Army plays press de­fense

Navy has been forced to work for ev­ery yard it has gained against Army dur­ing the pre­vi­ous four meet­ings. The Mid­ship­men were lim­ited to 282 and 201 to­tal yards in the 2014 and 2016 meet­ings.

Army will put nine or 10 de­fend­ers in the box and likes to crowd the line of scrim­mage when­ever it goes against Navy. Look for Chris­tiansen and fel­low in­side line­backer James Nachti­gal to shoot the gaps in an at­tempt to cause dis­rup­tion.

“They're not go­ing to sit back and let you op­er­ate. They are go­ing to push and press you. It's like a full-court press in bas­ket­ball,” Jasper said. “We have to make sure we're dis­ci­plined and deal with their pres­sure.”

Zach Abey will make his se­cond ca­reer start at quar­ter­back for Navy, which ranks third na­tion­ally in rush­ing of­fense (288.5 yards), but is av­er­ag­ing just 26.3 points (No. 88 in FBS). The Mid­ship­men faced a 10-man front against Tu­lane on Nov. 24 and went al­most ex­clu­sively to the air dur­ing the se­cond half.

Abey was ef­fec­tive throw­ing the ball that day and fin­ished with a ca­reer-high 204 pass­ing yards. Army will dare Navy to throw as well, but a few com­pleted passes will not change the strat­egy of de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Jay Bate­man.

“Go­ing into any game you want to com­plete a cou­ple play-ac­tion passes in or­der to get the de­fense to back up. Army is not go­ing to back off,” Jasper said. “They're go­ing to bring pres­sure all game. They're deal is: If you can get it off be­fore we get there you might have some­thing, but if get a sack you are now in se­cond-and-20.”

Speed­ster Mal­colm Perry started at quar­ter­back in last year's Army-Navy game and rushed for 250 yards and a touch­down while op­er­at­ing out of shot­gun for­ma­tion and run­ning be­hind a zone block­ing scheme. Perry is now play­ing slot­back and Jasper needs to dial up some plays that give Navy's most dy­namic run­ner a chance to break a long gain.

More than any­thing, Navy needs to elim­i­nate the penal­ties, men­tal mis­takes and neg­a­tive plays that have de­railed the of­fense so of­ten this sea­son.

“We've got to be to­tally on point. We've got to be con­sis­tent of­fen­sively. We have not ex­e­cuted for the en­tirety of a game so far this sea­son. We know we are ca­pa­ble of do­ing it. What bet­ter time to start than this game,” Ni­u­mat­alolo said.

Af­ter shat­ter­ing the se­ries record by beat­ing Army in 14 straight meet­ings, Navy has sud­denly dropped two in a row to the archri­val. De­spite the dis­ap­point­ing sea­son that has pro­duced just three wins, Ni­u­mat­alolo be­lieves his ball­club has the re­solve to muster a great ef­fort on Satur­day.

“What I like best about our team is that we've been through ev­ery­thing so we are bat­tle-tested,” Ni­u­mat­alolo said. “Our guys have been so re­silient. They've been knocked down and got­ten up so many times. I am con­fi­dent are guys are go­ing to come out on Satur­day and give Army a great bat­tle.”

Navy's Mal­colm Perry has 1,035 yards rush­ing and seven touch­downs pulling dou­ble duty as run­ning back and quar­ter­back. He's ninth on Navy's ca­reer rush­ing list.

Army quar­ter­back Kelvin Hop­kins Jr. has 783 yards rush­ing and 10 touch­downs. He's thrown six TDs but only at­tempted 81 passes all sea­son.

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