Mids eager to take down rival Air Force again

Win tonight gives Navy head start in CIC race

College Football

September 30, 2004|By Kent Baker | Kent Baker,SUN STAFF

The cherished Commander in Chief's Trophy is still resting in another case.

Tonight, when the two bitter rivals collide at Falcon Stadium in Colorado Springs, Colo., Air Force (2-2) is bent on returning it to more familiar territory while Navy (4-0) is just as determined to make Annapolis its permanent station.

Both schools still have to deal with rebuilding Army in the football series among the three major service academies, but this is the game that will probably decide the destination of the trophy named in honor of the nation's president.

Navy brought the hardware home last season by upsetting the then-nationally ranked Falcons at FedEx Field and Air Force has been seething ever since, awaiting this showdown which will be televised by ESPN, starting with the 7:45 p.m. kickoff.

If the game itself is anywhere nearly as spirited as the pre-game war of words, it should be a thriller. There is no reason to suspect anything else now that Navy has become a force under coach Paul Johnson after going 2-19 against Air Force from 1982 before the 2003 breakthrough.

Johnson fanned the flames of the feud at practice this week when asked if the academies shouldn't have respect for one another. "I think Army and Navy have pretty good respect," he replied. What was not said spoke volumes.

Strong sentiment about the Falcons is nothing new at Navy.

Navy players see the Falcons as haughty, even arrogant, and the beneficiaries of an easier lifestyle than that experienced in Annapolis and West Point, N.Y.

The latest feelings began to smolder when Air Force posted pictures of Navy fullback Kyle Eckel, who ran for a career-high 176 yards and a touchdown in last year's meeting, at every Falcons' locker with the tagline "Eckel for Heisman." They believe that the Midshipmen are promoting Eckel in that fashion although Navy sports information director Scott Strasemeier denies any such material was ever distributed.

Air Force's freshman quarterback, Shaun Carney, acknowledged the photos in a news conference, adding "all season this game is building up. This week is a lot more special because of what happened last year. We want that trophy back."

Johnson said he "saw an article that said we bought Commander in Chief's rings," an allegation he denied.

Navy's players are generally steering clear of the controversy, preferring to do their talking on the field.

"We'll see on Thursday," said senior cornerback Vaughn Kelley. "Newspaper articles are not going to be on the field. I'm just laughing at that other stuff."

Eckel said "that's good" when informed of his celebrity status in Colorado. "That's just something the coaches do to motivate the players. It's something to set up a few sparks. I think they should put pictures of all my offensive linemen up, too."

Another motivational tool is in the Falcons' weight room where - in place of the CIC Trophy - is a picture of Navy players holding onto and shining the prize.

"There's nothing in it," said Carney of the case. "Every day we have to pass it."

"They had the trophy so long, they got that swagger," said Navy quarterback Aaron Polanco. "It's the mentality we have to take in there ourselves."

"Every day for years they saw that trophy. They took it for granted," said Kelley. "I'd be upset, too, if I lost it."

All the talking won't mean a whole lot when the teams match option attacks, surprise pass plays and intensity levels tonight.

The teams have had a short turnaround. Both will be playing their second game within five days, but they know each other's tendencies well and neither figures to have any advantage.

Air Force coach Fisher DeBerry said the only thing he has told his team is "We play Navy. That's enough said."

Tonight's game

Navy (4-0) at Air Force (2-2)

Site: Falcon Stadium, Colorado Springs, Colo.

Time: 7:45

TV/Radio: ESPN/WJFK (1300 AM), WNAV (1430 AM)

Last week: Navy defeated Vanderbilt, 29-26; Air Force lost to No. 14 Utah, 49-35.

Line: Air Force by 1

Series record: Air Force leads, 25-11

Outlook: With Army struggling, this is considered the key game in the Commander in Chief's Trophy series among the three major service academies. Air Force is itching for revenge after Navy took the trophy last season with a hard-earned 28-25 victory at FedEx Field, marking the first triumph by the Midshipmen over a nationally ranked team since 1985. Navy has dropped three straight in Colorado since Tom Vanderhorst, currently the military liaison to the football staff, kicked a 25-yard field goal with 12 seconds left to seal a 20-17 win in 1996. As usual, it figures to be primarily a battle of ground offenses and time management. Navy is seventh in the nation in rushing with 280.25 yards per game, and Air Force is eighth at 278.75.

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