In describing the emotions that will accompany his players onto the field Saturday when they play Air Force at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, Navy coach Ken Niumatalo joked at this week's luncheon that the Midshipmen get so excited for the Falcons that "they forget their parents' names."
Air Force quarterback Tim Jefferson, whose two-touchdown heroics last season in Colorado Springs, Colo., helped end Navy's seven-game winning streak over the Falcons and a 15-game service academy winning streak with a 14-6 victory, said this week that "your adrenaline never leaves you, you're always jacked up throughout the game."
Once considered an afterthought in the rivalries among the three service academies, Navy-Air Force dates back 51 years to a Joe Bellino-led 35-3 rout by the Midshipmen at Baltimore's Memorial Stadium. Played continuously since the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy was introduced in 1972, the game has taken on even more significance than Army-Navy in terms of what's at stake.
"As far as the CIC trophy, I think this rivalry has become bigger than Army-Navy, or it became more relevant than Army-Navy," Jefferson said. "I don't think it will be rated higher than Army-Navy because that rivalry has been going on for over 100 years. Air Force being the new school on the block, you really can't compete with Army with its tradition."
Said Niumatalolo, "I don't want to downplay [the Air Force game]. … Both [rivalries are] very, very important."
Navy and Air Force have each won the trophy seven times since 1996, the last season Army took this coveted piece of hardware back to West Point. As a result, CBS decided to televise Saturday's game nationally on its network broadcast for the first time, beginning at noon from Annapolis.
Just as with the buildup to Army-Navy, Air Force coach Troy Calhoun talks about the respect the two programs have for each other and how someday the players together will serve as "officers and leaders for our country "
But there is also an undercurrent of hostility because of how competitive the series has become and because the Midshipmen believe the Falcons are a little too mouthy for their own good.
Four times in the previous eight years, the margin of victory has been three points. Two years ago in Annapolis, the game was won by the Midshipmen on a field goal in overtime — after the Falcons had missed a field goal.
"The Army rivalry is obviously very intense, but this one is — it's very hard to put into words," said Navy senior offensive guard John Dowd. "You respect them because they're going to be your brothers-in-arms, but there's this really deep [dislike]. I just don't like those guys."
Given that Army has started slowly again — the Black Knights are 1-3 after making a bowl game last season — the outcome Saturday will likely determine whether Navy (2-1) returns the trophy to Bancroft Hall or Air Force (2-1) keeps it in the Hall of Excellence at the Falcon Athletic Center.
Senior defensive end and Navy co-captain Jabaree Tuani said there are constant reminders of what happened last year, from passing the empty trophy case to what he constantly hears from friends and family. Even from a teammate's parent.
"The first day I saw [slotback] Bo Snelson's dad out there, he said, 'Do you know what Air Force is doing right now?'" recalled Tuani. "I said 'No sir.' He said, 'They're going to the White House.' The winner of the CIC gets to visit the president."
The thought of losing for a second straight year to Air Force — and likely the trophy — "is not an option right now," Tuani said.
Dowd, who will play Saturday with a broken right wrist protected by a cast, said that the Midshipmen prepared for two weeks before they met Delaware in the season opener, and a week for Western Kentucky and South Carolina. But "for Air Force, we've been getting ready since January. That's how important this game is for us."
It all goes back to what happened nearly a year to the day at Falcon Stadium, with Jefferson setting the tone on a 50-yard touchdown run in the first quarter after the Midshipmen were stopped three times from the Air Force 3-yard line.
"We're trying to get ready for this year's team," Niumatalolo said. "There's great pain from that game, but we've got to make sure we're preparing for the here and now."
Jefferson knows how motivated the Midshipmen will be coming out of their tunnel Saturday.
"I think they're going to be highly upset about last year's game," Jefferson said. "This group of guys [for Navy] has only lost one service academy game, so that obviously wasn't a great feeling for them. They're going to be out for revenge. It's going to be highly emotional."
And highly relevant.
AIR FORCE (2-1) @ NAVY (2-1)
Site: Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.
TV: Channel 7
Radio: 1090 AM, 1430 AM
Series: Air Force leads 25-17
Last meeting: Air Force 14, Navy 6 on Oct. 2, 2010 in Colorado Springs.