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Air Force's 2007 football team revitalized a program that had fallen upon hard times by going 9-4, finishing second in the Mountain West Conference and earning a bowl bid.

This season's 3-1 start has proven 2007 wasn't a fluke. But the rejuvenation of Air Force football is not yet complete. It won't be, according to many in and around the program, until the Falcons re-establish dominance amongst service academies.

That means, specifically, beating Navy, which visits Falcon Stadium at 2 p.m. Saturday.

"It's kind of the next step," senior center Andrew Pipes said.

The Midshipmen have beaten Air Force and won the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy (given to the winner of the service academies' round robin) each of the past five seasons.

It's a stunning reversal of a series the Falcons used to dominate. From 1982 through 2002, Air Force went 19-2 against Navy. It also went 17-4 against Army and won or retained the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy 17 of those 21 seasons.

But service academy supremacy now resides in Annapolis.

"The last five years they've owned the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy, and they've beaten us - they've had our number," said Air Force defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter, a 1985 academy graduate who was 3-0 against Navy as a player. "For us to get that Air Force swagger back, we've got to go out and take it from them."

Some in the program downplay Saturday's game, noting that beating Navy is just one of many goals and that Saturday's game is the biggest of the season only because "it's the next game on the schedule." Others admit what seems obvious: It's the biggest game of the season, period, especially given recent history.

Junior receiver Sean Quintana said every game is important, but that in the offseason the Navy game is "the game everyone thinks about."

"If you were asked to pick one, that'd be the one," he said.

"There's no question you want to get to a point in your program where, amongst the service academies, you're extremely strong," Air Force coach Troy Calhoun said. "And the sooner that it happens, the better off you are as a program."

Alumni and fans want win

Not beating Navy still eats at Shaun Carney and his classmates. A four-year starter at quarterback who graduated last spring and now serves as a graduate assistant for the Falcons, Carney went 0-4 against the Midshipmen. The games were decided by an average of six points.

"Not being able to beat them the four years we were here was very disappointing," Carney said. "And if there was one win we would have wanted, that would have been it."

It's clearly the game fans and alumni most want to win, too.

Quintana recalled football meetings prior to the past two seasons at which former players spoke.

"They were saying the one thing we need to get back to is getting that Commander-in-Chief's Trophy," he said.

And early last Tuesday morning, as junior guard Nick Charles left his dormitory, he was approached by a female cadet who asked, "Are we going to get after Navy?"

"I thought it was kind of funny," Charles said. "It was the first thing I heard all day."

"Everyone always is excited that you're winning games, and everyone's excited about last year, but the first thing everyone asks is, ‘When are you going to beat Navy?'" senior defensive end Ryan Kemp said. "I think so many people are looking at that. And for the alumni and for the fans, it's definitely important. And it's important for us too."Far-reaching effects

Re-gaining service academy supremacy would have an impact that reaches far beyond fan pride, a chance to display the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy and a trip to the White House (which the trophy-winning team gets). It also would affect recruiting.

Because service academies often vie for the same recruits, the team that's winning the head-to-head games has an edge.

"I was recruited by Army, too," junior guard Peter Lusk said. "So the big thing between Army and here was (Air Force) has a much better football team."

Calhoun said "you've got an extremely small pool of academy kids." And he noted that Navy quarterback Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada, who scored the decisive touchdown in last year's game, took an official visit to Air Force, as did recently graduated Reggie Campbell, who led Navy in all-purpose yards last season.

"We're recruiting the same kind of kids," Air Force receivers coach and former quarterback Mike Thiessen said. "So it goes a long way. There's plenty of differences that you can distinguish between the two (academies), but when it comes down to it, whoever wins the game is going to say, ‘That's fine if you want to go there. We'll just beat you every year.' That's what you want to say. That's what both sides want to say. So it makes a difference."

Saturday sets up well

Though Air Force has an inexperienced squad - especially compared with Navy - there are significant factors in the Falcons' favor this season.

Air Force will be at home and will have had two weeks to prepare, as it had a bye last weekend. The Midshipmen, meanwhile, will be playing their second straight road game after playing at Wake Forest last Saturday.

In addition, the Midshipmen have a first-year head coach (Ken Niumatalolo), while Air Force is in the second season of the Calhoun Era.

One advantage the Midshipmen have is recent history. Five straight victories clearly have built a belief and confidence in Navy players.

It's an advantage Air Force had for years, and hopes to get back with a victory Saturday.

"That's how we felt when I was here," said Thiessen, who went unbeaten against Navy as a player. "It was like, ‘They don't have a chance to beat us.' And that's probably how they're feeling right now. At some point that tide's going to turn again. Rather sooner rather than later."

"It's time," DeRuyter said. "Especially here in our back yard."

 

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