Air Force-Navy is one of the sure things in sports. For the past nine seasons, the Falcons and Midshipmen have delivered entertaining games filled with vicious hitting, dramatic finishes and captivating malice.
Air Force coach Troy Calhoun believes this is the most closely contested rivalry in college sports. What other series, he asked, is almost always decided by a touchdown or less?
He asks a valid question. In the past nine seasons, the average margin of victory in the Air Force-Navy rivalry has been five points. Close games are the norm.
Last season, the Midshipmen roared back from an 18-point deficit to tie the game in regulation and force overtime.
Air Force emerged, barely, as the victor, escaping with a 35-34 win after a late call forced the Midshipmen to attempt a 35-yard extra point. It was blocked by Air Force’s Alex Means, setting off a storm of protest.
It was a typical game in this rivalry. Close. Tense. Controversial. Entertaining.
Contrast this constant drama with the Navy-Army series. Yes, Army-Navy has a glorious history featuring a selection of some of the greatest players in college football history, including Army’s Glenn Davis, Doc Blanchard and Pete Dawkins and Navy’s Roger Staubach, Joe Bellino and Napoleon McCallum.
The rivalry fails to sizzle in the present tense. In the past 10 games, all Navy wins, the average margin of victory has been 23.7 points. From 2002 to last season, Navy tripled Army’s point total (321-101).
Still, the Army game remains top priority for Navy players and coaches.
“Just the history behind it, the long battles between us that have been going on for a long time,” Navy quarterback Trey Miller said. “Army-Navy is just a huge thing around here. That’s just how it is. I’m not sure why.”
For a decade, the Army-Navy series has been lopsided to the extreme in favor of the Midshipmen.
For decades, the Air Force-Navy series had the same feel. From 1982 to 2002, the Falcons defeated the Midshipmen 19 of 21 times while winning 16 Commander-in-Chief’s titles.
But all this fun ended when Paul Johnson arrived at Navy. Johnson installed an option offense and a freshly hostile attitude. Johnson departed Navy after the 2007 season to coach Georgia Tech.
The change at Navy was not immediate. On Oct. 6, 2002, the Falcons pulverized Navy, 48-7, at Falcon Stadium in Johnson’s first game against Air Force. He told his players to spend several seconds examining the scoreboard. The Midshipmen had once again been humiliated, and Johnson wanted his players to remember the feeling.
His tactic worked. Navy won its next seven games against Air Force as part of a 16-game winning streak in service-academy games. The rivalry had switched from laughably uneven to intensely competitive.
And intensely competitive is where it remains.
Means, a senior, was laughing in the sunshine this week as he considered the Midshipmen’s upcoming invasion. He’s a veteran of three clashes with Navy.
“It’s always a battle,” Means said. “It’s more than just a game. It’s a smash-mouth game of football. In your face. None of that fancy stuff. Nitty-gritty football. We like it that way. That’s how it should be in service-academy football,” Means said.
For years, Navy-Air Force has been one of the sure things in college football.
That’s how it should be.
CLOSE SERIES OF LATE
2003 - Navy 28-25*
2004 - Navy 24-21 (Air Force home-H)
2005 - Navy 27-24 (A)
2006 - Navy 24-17 (H)
2007 - Navy 31-20 (A)
2008 - Navy 33-27 (H)
2009 - Navy 23-16 (A) OT
2010 - AFA 14-6 (H)
2011 - AFA 35-34 (A) OT
* - Washington, DC
SATURDAY RUSH HOUR
The academy is urging fans to show up early to the Air Force–Navy game to avoid traffic buildups and be able to enter the stadium on time for the game.