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Air Force Falcons celebrate following the singing of their alma mater as they defeated the Navy Midshipmen at Falcon Stadium at the U.S. Air Force Academy on Saturday October 6, 2018, in Colorado Springs. (Dougal Brownlie, The Gazette)

These are strange times for the Air Force vs. Navy rivalry.

For 20 consecutive years, the winner of this game went on to capture the Commander-in-Chief’s trophy.

The teams also enjoyed long bowl runs, with Air Force earning bowl berths in nine of 10 seasons between 2007 and 2016 and Navy going to bowls in 14 of 15 years through 2017.

Now, none of that is a given.

With Army rising under coach Jeff Monken, Air Force hasn’t taken a Commander-in-Chief’s trophy since 2016. Navy’s drought goes back to 2015.

The Falcons have missed bowl games the past two seasons. The Midshipmen stayed home last year.

And last year saw the most lopsided meeting between Air Force and Navy since 2002, with the Falcons running away with it 35-7.

None of this diminishes the stakes Saturday. If anything, it raises them.

“Obviously, they’re going to be coming after us,” Air Force tight end Kade Waguespack said.

Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo left last year’s game at Falcon Stadium describing it as “a good old-fashioned butt whooping.”

He knows the task will be as great, if not greater this time around.

“They’re always good, but this is one of their better teams,” he said.

Asked what specifically has him calling this year’s Air Force (3-1) team better, Niumatalolo pointed to the offense operating specifically under center instead of also using shotgun formations. Though he noted he wouldn’t be surprised if they switched things up this week.

“They have gone back to under center – gone back to their roots, so to speak,” he said. “You can see that their kids are playing fast, know exactly what they’re doing. They’re not trying to go back and forth from under center to gun. They have a true identity to what they’re trying to do on offense.”

Defensively, he called the defensive line “as good as some of the really good teams we played in the past,” as he singled out the play of Jordan Jackson, Mosese Fifita, Kaleb Nunez and Lakota Wills.

“I just feel like they’re really stout in their front seven, with really good secondary guys,” he said. “I just feel like they’re playing really well right now.”

Gauging Navy is more tricky at this point. While Air Force has played four games, Navy (2-1) has played three. And only one of those, a road loss at Memphis, came against a team ranked in the top 135 of the computer rankings.

But what it has shown is a rushing attack that leads the nation, a passing game that is more efficient than it has been in the past (it already has three touchdown passes after throwing for just five in 13 games last year). The offense goes through quarterback Malcolm Perry (team-high 275 rushing yards; 336 passing yards), and the defense is led by sophomore linebacker Diego Fagot.

But in a rivalry like this, does anything that’s happened so far this year matter? Two years ago Navy outgunned the Falcons to win 49-46. Last year saw the Midshipmen held to seven points.

All that can be predicted with certainty is a slugfest between teams that desperately want to move past Saturday with a chance to reclaim the coveted trophy and inch closer to bowl eligibility. In that order.

“We have other rivals, but there’s nothing else like this,” Air Force senior guard Colin Marquez said. “It really gets your blood going and gets you really excited for practice – ready to get out there and work maybe a little bit harder, grind it out a little bit more so you can really put your best team on the field against a service academy.”

Added safety Garrett Kauppila, “We know this is a championship game for us. That’s the mentality.”

Naturally, that enthusiasm stretches to both sides.

“I’m pretty pumped up,” said Navy freshman linebacker Tama Tuitele, a Regis Jesuit graduate and Aurora native.

“Just a different atmosphere in general, you can definitely feel a different vibe. Everyone’s hyped up.”

Strange times for this rivalry, but the intensity doesn’t seem to have changed one bit.

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