ANNAPOLIS, Md. - Air Force and Navy will meet for the 50th time on Saturday.
This history of those meetings tells Midshipmen coach Ken Niumatalolo what to expect more than the four games the Falcons have played this year.
“Same Air Force,” the coach in his 10th year said. “They’re always a good program.”
The Falcons (1-3) have hit a snag, losing three in a row – two against top-25 opponents and another against a New Mexico team that has won four of the past five meetings in the series.
The Midshipmen (4-0), on the other hand, are rolling. They’ve won 28 of 35 games, and here are the losses in that span: at Notre Dame and at Houston in 2015, at Air Force and at South Florida in 2016 – teams that went a combined 44-9 in those seasons – and a three-game skid at the end of last season when injuries took them down to the No. 3 quarterback.
Niumatalolo posted a .675 winning percentage in his first three years, dipped to .588 for the next four years and is at .774 since the start of the 2015 season -- a time that coincided with the team dropping its longtime standing as an independent to join the American Athletic Conference.
“I think joining the league has definitely helped us in recruiting,” Niumatalolo said. “It’s allowed us to get into big markets, from Orlando to Cincinnati, Houston and Dallas. We’re also down in Tampa with South Florida. From an overall exposure standpoint it’s helped us in recruiting.”
While one service academy is enjoying the best of modern times, what of the one nestled on the north edge of Colorado Springs?
When compared the Navy over the past eight full seasons, the overall picture for Air Force is similar. Each team has played in seven bowl games and won four Commander-in-Chief’s trophies, and each team has finished higher than the other in the Sagarin computer rankings four times. But Air Force’s lows have been more exaggerated.
What remains to be seen is if Air Force’s current struggles are more reflective of the teams they’ve played and some bizarre weather that has forced 149 minutes of lightning delays, or if this is a season in a free fall.
Niumatalolo is convinced it’s the former, as Air Force is about to play its third unbeaten foe in the past four weeks.
“We know the players, they’re good players, a lot of them we recruited,” said the coach who is 5-4 against the Falcons. “We know we’re going to have our hands full.”
Navy enters with the nation’s leading rushing attack (400 yards per game). It is led by quarterback Zach Abey (656 rushing yards, seven touchdowns; 385 passing yards, three touchdowns) and features a defense that ranks 39th in yards allowed and 50th in scoring.
“They’re always good,” Air Force defensive end Santo Coppola said of the Midshipmen. “They’re always going to play the best they can against us.
“In all the service academy games there’s that underlying level of respect because we know what we’re going to be doing after we graduate is a little bit different. So there’s always that level of respect. But on the field, I mean, we’re battling as hard as we can against them. We know they’re going to bring it, and we’re going to bring it just as hard.”
And, of course, there’s a trophy on the line. For all of Navy’s success, it has struggled in service academy games. Last year it went 0-2 against Air Force and Army for the first time since 2001.
Niumatalolo didn’t waste any time reminding his team of this fact.
“They’re a lot smarter than me,” he said. “If I had to remind them about that, they probably couldn’t have gotten into the Naval Academy.”