The spoils are awaiting Navy's claim.
Beginning with today's Senior Day game against Central Michigan, a raft of rewards are at stake for the Midshipmen to climax this comeback season, including their first Commander in Chief's Trophy in more than two decades, a first winning record in six years and a potential bowl-game invitation. Not to mention some restored pride.
But first things first. After three dismal autumns that produced three victories in 33 games, Navy can clinch a winning record by beating the Chippewas and send off 22 soon-to-be-graduated seniors in grand style.
The Midshipmen are 20-point favorites to do so in their first meeting with Central Michigan, which closed its Mid-American Conference season as the bottom team in a powerful West Division headed by Bowling Green, Toledo and Northern Illinois.
A crowd of 30,000-plus is expected at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium for the 1:30 p.m. kickoff.
To stumble now would be a major setback for Navy, which last played in the postseason in 1996, winning a thrilling Aloha Bowl from California, 42-38.
This game is especially important to the seniors, who have never been on the winning side in a home finale. The last time Navy prevailed on this day was in 1999 against Tulane, and last year's Senior Day game brought a 38-0 loss to Connecticut.
"It was tough for three years when we didn't win any game at home," said rover Eli Sanders. "Now this one's here, and I'm excited to be playing in it. I can't believe it came so fast."
"I can remember coming here believing things might pick up," added punter John Skaggs. "My high school team wasn't very good and I felt things would get better. For three years, we felt like we weren't doing anything right. It was horrible. Now, there's a whole different feeling of confidence."
Perhaps as few as a dozen seniors will actually play because of injuries and coach Paul Johnson's accent on youth. Two of those are the co-captains, quarterback Craig Candeto and linebacker Eddie Carthan, the cornerstones of the offense and defense, respectively.
One senior, center Shane Todd, will dress for the game but is not expected to play because of an injured toe.
"I'm sure it will be emotional for them [seniors]," said Johnson. "Hopefully, we can send them out right. Our last game at the stadium last year was horrendous. We've got a lot to make amends for."
Navy has had two weeks to recover from another heartbreaking defeat to Notre Dame, its 40th consecutive loss in the series. There should be no hangover effect with so much on the line for the Midshipmen.
Representatives from the Dec. 26 Motor City Bowl (Detroit) will be in attendance to scout Navy, which needs one more win to become eligible for a bowl game. Navy finishes its regular season against Army on Dec. 6 in Philadelphia, where it can claim the Commander in Chief's Trophy presented annually to the winner of the football competition among the major service academies.
The overall bowl picture remains cloudy because of qualifications for the Bowl Championship Series, conference tie-ins, potential trade-offs by bowls and overall team qualification.
One thing is clear. Navy must win today - and possibly beat archrival Army as well - to have a shot.
Central Michigan (3-8) vs. Navy (6-4)
Site: Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium
Time: 1:30 p.m.
Radio: WJFK (1300 AM), WNAV (1430 AM)
Line: Navy by 20
Series: First meeting
Last week: Navy was idle. Central Michigan lost to Western Michigan, 44-21.
Navy offense vs. Central Michigan defense: Navy's spread option has produced the best rushing team in the nation (302.4 yards per game), and the Chippewas have not faced such an attack this season. As usual, the Midshipmen will grind it out and take the big play if it breaks. Central Michigan is smallish on the defensive unit compared with Notre Dame, Navy's last opponent, and is permitting nearly 500 yards and more than 33 points a game. But the Chippewas, led by SS James King (134 tackles) and LB Anthony Tyus (115) have 27 sacks and 77 tackles for losses.
Navy defense vs. Central Michigan offense: Bend-but-not-break frequently has been the trademark of the Navy defense, which is much improved because it is not on the field as often, thanks to the offense's possession time. The Midshipmen are fourth best in the country against the pass. The Chippewas have been depending on 5-foot-8 RB Jerry "Bam Bam" Seymour, who has broken 100 yards in six games. QB Derrick Vickers has thrown for 5,155 career yards, so the offense is rather well balanced. Eighteen players have been receivers. Central Michigan's big offensive line could present problems for Navy, which is plus-4 in turnover ratio.
Special teams: Despite plenty of practice bringing back kickoffs, the Chippewas have not returned a kick for a touchdown all season (nor has Navy). Their punter, Brian Brandt, is a good one, averaging 43.1 per kick with 18 inside the opponents' 20. Navy's John Skaggs is right behind with a 41.5 average, and Eric Rolfs has made six straight field-goal attempts.
- Kent Baker