Navy knows mission well

Mids seek 4th straight win over Air Force

shift in rivalry dates to '03 victory over Falcons

October 07, 2006|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,Sun Reporter

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- Navy senior defensive back Jeremy McGown had just been promoted to the varsity. He spent the afternoon mainly as a spectator in pads. Senior linebacker David Mahoney made his first start for the Midshipmen that day, and his experience flashed by in a blur.

For both players, plebes at the time, what transpired at FedEx Field on Oct. 4, 2003, resonates vividly as a watershed moment.

When Navy took control of then-undefeated, 25th-ranked Air Force, then held on for a 28-25 victory to beat the Falcons for the first time in seven years, the Mids - 3-30 over their previous three seasons - served notice they were no longer a joke. And while Navy has prospered ever since, Air Force in some ways is still trying to recover.

"That's the day it all turned around," said Mahoney, who has started a team-high 35 games and has become possibly the most indispensable player on the Navy defense.

"I remember overwhelming joy in the locker room. People were hugging each other, players and coaches alike," McGown said. "There was something electrifying about that game. We set a standard that year, and we don't want to lower it. [Air Force] is chasing after us now."

Navy (4-1) plans to enter Falcon Stadium today with the big picture in mind. Another victory would do two things. First, it would mean the Mids have to beat Army to win the Commander in Chief's Trophy outright for the fourth straight year, which has never been done at Navy. Also, it would leave the Mids just one victory away from achieving bowl eligibility for the fourth consecutive season.

Despite how Navy coach Paul Johnson has harped on not putting too much emphasis on the game, all you had to do was watch some notable hitting at practice this week to feel the vibe. A contest between service academies automatically provides added emotion. The 39th meeting between Navy and Air Force may carry even a little extra. It actually has become a rivalry again.

For the past three seasons, the two programs have reversed course in more ways than one. After losing 19 of its previous 21 games to the Falcons - including a 48-7 rout at Falcon Stadium in 2002, Johnson's first year as head coach - Navy has come back to sting Air Force three straight times, each by a field goal.

The past two wins have been decided by last-second kicks. Last year at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, the Mids trailed by a touchdown with 4:26 left before taking a 27-24 thriller on a 46-yard field goal by kicker Joey Bullen with 0.4 of a second remaining.

Today, Navy will attempt to break new ground twice. The Mids have never won four straight over Air Force (2-1) and have never won two in a row here.

"They've had our number for the last three years," said Air Force coach Fisher DeBerry, who is in his 23rd season and added he no longer keeps an empty trophy case in the Falcons locker room as a reminder. Before Navy won the Commander in Chief's Trophy in 2003, Air Force had held it for 13 of the previous 14 years.

"We haven't made a big deal out of that this year. Our players know it's not here," DeBerry added. "All programs go through cycles."

Said Johnson: "That [win in 2003] got us over the hump in believing we could beat them. They [past Navy teams] had all kind of chances. They'd drop passes in the end zone, get punts blocked, whatever they could do to find a way to lose. Now it's kind of reversed. Winning begets winning."

And look at what's happened to the respective programs in the wake of Navy's breakthrough. Starting with the victory at FedEx Field, Navy is 28-10, with back-to-back bowl wins and a perfect, 6-0 mark against Air Force and Army. In addition, the Mids have a 9-5 record in games decided by five points or fewer.

Air Force is 13-19 over that same span. The Falcons are coming off of back-to-back losing seasons for the first time during DeBerry's tenure. Their three-year bowl-game drought is the longest under DeBerry, who is 1-3 against Johnson as a head coach and 2-4 counting when Johnson was offensive coordinator at Navy, in 1995 and 1996.

The Navy seniors, such as quarterback Brian Hampton and fullback Matt Hall, expect another tight contest today against a rival that nearly upset Tennessee last month. They also think the Mids can draw on their recent experience, play with enough controlled emotion, and find a way to win again with that coveted trophy at stake.

"That game [in 2003] gave us the confidence that we were a different team and things were changing. Every time we went out on the field, we expected to win," Hall said. "Now, we get upset if we don't win the way we want to win. But if you go 10-2 and you lose that trophy, you'll look back and think it was a down year." "We don't want to be ones to drop the ball," Hampton said.

gary.lambrecht@baltsun.com

Navy today

Matchup -- Navy (4-1) at Air Force (2-1)

Time -- 2 p.m.

TV -- CSTV

Radio -- 1090 AM, 1500 AM, 1430 AM, 107.7 FM, Sirius 110

Line -- Air Force by 2 1/2

Series -- Air Force leads, 25-13.

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