BALTIMORE — Army-Navy is America’s Game. That’s the way Jeff Monken sees it, and he brings a solid argument to back up the assertion.
Now in his third season as Army’s head coach, Monken previously spent six years as an assistant at Navy. Having been an integral part of the annual duel between the esteemed service academies, Monken considers it to be the epitome of college football.
On Saturday, he will proudly stand on the sideline, delighted to again be a part of something special.
“Every young man that’s playing in the game and 9,000 other college-aged students dressed in uniform sitting in the stands have all made a pledge of commitment to serve this nation,” Monken said. “Ultimately, they’ll put their lives on the line for all of us who aren’t willing to make that commitment. If people don’t see this as America’s Game, I don’t know that they’re paying close enough attention.”
It doesn’t matter that neither Army (6-5) nor Navy (9-3) are in the Top 25, or that the Midshipmen have defeated the Black Knights 14 times in a row.
“It’s just a great rivalry that’s been a part of the college football landscape for over a century,” Monken said.
When their football careers end, the players are obligated to begin serving in the military. Those already in battle will be represented Saturday by several men who may ultimately be by their side.
“For all the soldiers who are laying in foxholes all over the world, chasing bad guys and standing in the gap between the freedom we enjoy and the people that want to take it from us, what an honor and privilege to represent them in a game like this where the whole nation gets to watch,” Monken said.
Each team wants to win, but they’re all in this thing together.
“We’re both fierce competitors. They’ve got warriors on their side, we’ve got warriors on our side,” Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo said. “We want to beat each other, but there’s a mutual respect because both schools know what these young men will be doing for their country when they’re done playing football.”
Five things to know about the Army-Navy game, the 117th installment of a rivalry that began in 1890:
1. The streak
Army hasn’t won since 2001 and now trails in the series 60-49-7. “I don’t think there’s a streak,” Army senior linebacker Andrew King said. “The 2016 Army team has not faced the 2016 Navy team, so we’re 0-0 heading into this matchup, looking to go 1-0.” Monken, conversely, refused to hide from the obvious “You can’t avoid it,” he said. “Everybody talks about it. Everybody says when’s it going to end and who’s going to end it? There’s a sense of responsibility to get a victory in this game.”
2. Playing for No. 28
Army suffered a somber loss when sophomore cornerback Brandon Jackson was killed in a one-car crash in September. The Black Knights have dedicated the rest of the season to his memory and their gold helmets have a commemorative sticker with his number on the back. “He’s definitely in our thoughts,” King said. “I know he’d love to be out here playing with us. I know he’s looking down on us.”
3. On the rebound
Navy is coming off a 34-10 defeat to Temple in the American Athletic Conference title game. “Obviously it’s a devastating loss,” Niumatalolo said. “But we’re hoping for the same results following our other two losses. We lost to Air Force, came back and beat Houston. Lost to South Florida, came back to beat Notre Dame . So hopefully after the loss to Temple we can come back to beat our rivals.”
4. Depleted by injury
Navy quarterback Zach Abey will make his first college start after Will Worth broke his foot against Temple. The Midshipmen also lost slot back Toneo Gulley (foot) in that game. Niumatalolo expects his team to work through it. “It’s who they are as people,” he said. “When you come to a service academy you have to deal with a lot of things, a lot of adversity. These kids become resilient. To lose these key players, it’s tough, but the next guy steps up.”
5. Back to Baltimore
The game has been held in Philadelphia 10 times in 13 years since 2002. Baltimore hosted in 2007 and 2014, and Landover, Maryland was the site in 2011. Navy has won three straight in Baltimore after starting with defeats in 1924 and 1944.