Wary of Army, Navy goes after historic sweep

Seniors seek 8-0 mark vs. military schools

December 02, 2006|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,Sun reporter

PHILADELPHIA -- The Navy seniors can taste it now. They are one victory away from doing what might have seemed unthinkable several years ago.

Amid the pageantry and the sellout crowd that will offer a backdrop to the 107th meeting between Army and Navy today at Lincoln Financial Field, the Midshipmen insist that they will carry a single-minded, tunnel-vision focus into the stadium.

Seniors such as linebacker Tyler Tidwell and left tackle Matt Pritchett acknowledge that the thought of becoming the first class in academy history to go 8-0 against Army and Air Force is a thread that has tied this season together. The idea of winning an unprecedented fourth consecutive Commander in Chief's Trophy has weighed on the team's veterans since they swept the other service academies a year ago.

But today, they say, it all boils down to one basic element. Forget about being heavily favored over a rival they have pushed around for three years, and remember who they are and whom they are facing. And if you let your guard down, expect to pay the consequences.

"Army is not going to lay down for us," Pritchett said. "Those guys are going to come out ready to take our heads off if we come out relaxed."

"We're far from an unbeatable team. If there's one game every year we don't have a problem getting ready for, it's Army," Tidwell said. "Put yourself in the shoes of an Army football player, and realize how hard they're going to play. If they beat us, that's going to make their season. That would be a great building block for them."

Four years ago, when both programs were adrift and Paul Johnson was a first-year coach in Annapolis suffering through the longest fall of his career, Navy flourished in that scenario. Entering the game with a 1-10 record, the Mids finished on the highest of notes by drilling Army, 58-12, the most lopsided result in the history of the series.

What a spark that was for Navy (8-3), which has gone 34-14 since and can tie the school record for wins by a class with two more victories. The 36th win would come Dec. 30 in the Meineke Car Care Bowl at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C., against an Atlantic Coast Conference opponent - possibly Maryland - to be announced tomorrow.

Dating to the 2003 season, Navy has gone 2-1 in bowl games and has widened its competitive distance from Army, which has neither had a winning season nor been to a postseason game since 1996, and has had three coaches during that span. Bobby Ross took over the season after Todd Berry was fired during an 0-13 crash in 2003.

Ross coaxed a 4-7 record out of the Black Knights last year, including a four-game winning streak that Navy stopped with a 42-23 rout. This year, youth, injuries and an astonishing 35 turnovers have turned a 3-3 start into a 3-8 thud. Meanwhile, Navy is angling on only its third five-game winning streak over Army during the entire series.

"I was going into this season really excited. There was no doubt in my mind that we were going to a bowl game," Army senior right guard Pete Bier said. "Then [stuff] started hitting the fan, one thing after another went wrong, and it just de-escalated from there. This is the last game of my college career. There's nothing to hold back or save for."

"What [Navy] has done to us the past few years is kick our butts pretty bad," Army senior defensive end Cameron Craig said. "This game is all about pride."

It's hard to imagine the senior-laden Mids suddenly failing to do the things that got them here - run the ball effectively out of their spread option and limit big plays while forcing an occasional turnover on defense.

Navy also has been tested and shaped by a series of injuries that have revealed the growth in the program under Johnson.

Senior quarterback Brian Hampton went down in midseason with a knee injury. Sophomore Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada has run the offense with a calm demeanor and sound decisions, while injecting life into the passing game. Senior safety DuJuan Price went down in Week 2 with a quadriceps injury. Freshman Jeromy Miles has solidified the secondary and added a nasty edge to the run defense. Right tackle Josh Meek was lost five weeks ago to a knee injury. Sophomore Andrew McGinn took over, and the Mids are running away with another NCAA rushing title.

Meanwhile, Johnson, who has never met an inferior opponent he couldn't fret over, is wary of and respectful toward the Black Knights. He figures to be his typically intense, demanding self on the sideline, as he enjoys one of the sport's unique rivalries.

"In other rivalries, the two schools just don't like each other, but that's not the case here. We do like each other," Johnson said. "When I was growing up, my brother and I, when we got into a fight, we would fight to the finish, but if somebody else tried to fight one of us, they had to fight both. That's kind of the way Army-Navy is, I think."

gary.lambrecht@baltsun.com

Today's game

Matchup -- Army (3-8) vs. Navy (8-3) at Lincoln Financial Field, Philadelphia

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