With a war of words in neither team's pre-game plan, Navy and Air Force will settle their squabbles strictly on the field before a standing-room-only crowd today at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.
The bitter rivals have dispensed with the verbal barbs that preceded last year's game in Colorado and focused entirely on the quest for the Commander in Chief's Trophy, the prize named in honor of the nation's president and awarded to the winner of the annual football competition among the three major service academies.
Kickoff in this pivotal clash in the trophy chase will be 1:30 p.m., highlighting a full day of festivities to rededicate the refurbished stadium.
Comments have been measured all around this time, partly because both teams are struggling defensively. Air Force (2-3) has dropped three games in a row, and Navy (1-2) labored to get past Duke last weekend after two tough three-point defeats.
"If my team is not motivated for this game, then they're brain dead," said Navy coach Paul Johnson. "It's still an early game for us, but it's really important. I hope they [Air Force] are not any more urgent about it than we are, but they're going to come in here ready to roll, hell-bent for leather."
The Falcons got to thinking the trophy had a permanent home in Colorado Springs after winning it 16 times in 20 years (Army won the other four), while Navy was blanked. Under Johnson, the roles have been reversed the past two years, with the Midshipmen prevailing in two exciting three-point decisions.
"Our trophy case is in some storeroom somewhere, I guess," said veteran Falcons coach Fisher DeBerry, who is 17-4 against Navy. "Our No. 1 goal has been to compete for the trophy, and our case is empty. They have something we'd like to have very, very bad."
To regain it, Air Force will probably have to beat both Navy and Army. If the three teams finish at 1-1, the trophy would remain at Bancroft Hall in Annapolis. Army has been the weakest of the three of late but is improving in its second year under coach Bobby Ross.
Falcons players, formerly ebullient about their domination, have been humbled by the reversal and have been careful not to say anything inflammatory. Starting quarterback Shaun Carney went so far as to call the Navy game "important, but no one game defines the season. It's just another stop on the road."
Despite the downplaying, the Midshipmen are aware that Air Force is extremely hungry. The lack of swagger this year doesn't mean a lack of interest.
"I walk by that trophy every day, and I still want to see it there next spring," said Navy quarterback Lamar Owens.
"The freshmen have to go around saying `Beat Air Force' all week," said linebacker Rob Caldwell. "It's really important to keep it."
"There's no secret that it's one of the goals of our team and one of the goals for their team," said Johnson. "You can't necessarily win it this week, but you can certainly lose it."
Both teams will have to tighten up to achieve the goal. Navy is allowing 28.3 points and 391.3 yards per game; Air Force is at 30.8 and 426.2, respectively. On paper, the game looms as an offensive shootout, since both option offenses have been productive.
The Falcons' biggest problem has been turnovers - eight in the past three games - but they have size and experience advantages and will be well rested after losing to Colorado State two Thursdays ago.
Navy has the edge in playing at its stadium after meeting the Falcons three straight home games at FedEx Field in Landover. That is something Johnson campaigned for, and he is hoping for some boisterous backing, especially from the brigade of Midshipmen.
"We have to go play in their stadium," he said. "Hopefully, we can make this a tough place to play for them."
Making productive use of possessions will be vital in this game between similar offenses. Both teams like to play ball control, grind out the clock and limit the opponent's opportunties. Holding onto the ball is the most important factor in that approach.
"You better make money while you've got the ball," said DeBerry. "You're not going to get it as many times as you normally would. Whichever team feels the greatest sense of urgency and is more desperate will prevail."
Air Force (2-3) @Navy (1-2)
Site -- Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium
Time -- 1:30 p.m.
Radio -- 1090 AM, 1430 AM
Series record -- Air Force leads, 25-12
Last week -- Air Force lost to Colorado State, 41-23; Navy beat Duke, 28-21
Line -- Navy by 1