There is only one college football game that commands the nation’s attention every year, and it’s the Army-Navy rivalry. The Black Knights and Midshipmen meet Saturday for the 123rd meeting in one of sport’s all-time great rivalries. As is modern tradition, it will be the only major college football game played this weekend and stands in stark contrast to the Heisman Trophy presentation that immediately follows it.
Army-Navy Game 2022: The Classic Sports Rivalry in Modern Times
The Classic Sports Rivalry
First, the laudatory. Among all great rivalries, Army-Navy stands alone as the classic sports rivalry. It is that rivalry that embodies the most absolute desire to win focused against a singular opponent without any of the hate or vitriol that roils sports these days. It is that rivalry that exemplifies all that is good in sport — sportsmanship, execution, strategy, heart — without being bogged down by modern distractions of money or fame. The two competing teams, and the accompanying Corps of Cadets and Brigade of Midshipmen, look like a throwback highlight reel brought to life with the assistance of modern technology. The ghosts of college football past, so ever-present at these two institutions, barely hide from plain view on one select Saturday a year.
But as with all things, the classic sports rivalry must find relevancy in the modern age – lest Army-Navy goes the way of the wishbone.
A Modern Touch
And mature it has. Both schools have done a good job balancing the rich tradition of the game with modern demands. The marketing hits the spot. The move to the current time slot, with no other college football competition, is a tremendous benefit. The partnership with CBS more than justifies moving the game off of rivalry weekend. And the rivalry uniforms are out-of-this-world good.
The investment in the athletic departments, by both schools, justifies the attention that the game gets. There have been a handful of NFL draftees in this game over the last decade. Army’s Andre Carter II will add to that list in the spring, possibly as the first Service Academy first-round draft pick in five decades. The programs might not be as big or as successful as Ohio State, Michigan, Alabama, or Auburn, but both Army and Navy are legitimate Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) teams. The massive viewership isn’t charity, it’s fans that appreciate both a classic rivalry and two good teams competing hard.
The Value of Disappointment
But both of these teams come into Saturday’s game off of a disappointing season. That — counterintuitively — is the true mark of the modernization of this game. Neither of these teams will be eligible for a bowl this season. Army comes into the game at 5-6, with two wins against FCS opponents, and Navy sits at 4-7.
In the 17 seasons from 1986 to 2003, Army and Navy combined for a total of three bowl appearances. Since 2003, either Army or Navy has been to a bowl in every season except 2011. Army has reached bowl eligibility in five of the past six seasons. And while this is Navy’s third straight season without a bowl berth, the Mids have 15 such berths in the last 20 seasons. Three times in the last seven seasons, one of these teams has entered the game ranked in the Top 25.
The modern era of college football — constantly blamed for all that ails the sport — has ushered in the golden era of the sport’s most classic rivalry. Is that by chance? Or for some other reason?
The 123rd Army-Navy Game
Location: Lincoln Financial Field
Time: 3:00 p.m.
Odds: Navy -1.5, O/U 32.5
Alas, all too often the actual game is overshadowed by the history and pageantry of the game. It goes without saying that even though neither team will see a bowl game this year, there’s still plenty to play for. Everything, in fact, is on the line. With all due respect to the other great rivalries of sport — Ohio State-Michigan, Alabama-Auburn, Barcelona-Madrid, Duke-North Carolina, Lakers-Celtics — there is no other game that means as much to the players, student body, administration, and alumni (literally every alumni) as this singular game.
With teams so evenly matched, it often comes down to who makes the fewest mistakes.
Both of these teams have been plagued by mistakes this season. Army lost the turnover margin in their first four games against FBS opponents this season, including a -2 turnover margin in their overtime loss to UTSA in week two. Navy was -5 in turnover margin in their opening two games against FCS Delaware and Memphis. And their only other game with a negative turnover margin was the six-point loss to SMU. Both teams finished the second half of the season with plus turnover margins.
Penalties have been noticeable this season as well. Army had six or more penalties in six of their first seven games this season, including seven for 70 yards in the UTSA loss. The Black Knights had a total of 12 in the last four games of the season. Navy wasn’t penalized quite as many times as Army, but they did have six penalties against Delaware and SMU, both one-score games.
Both teams are left wondering what would have been with better execution in key moments this season. They also know that Saturday will likely come down to the team that makes the fewest mistakes.
Can Army Stop Navy’s Rushing Attack
The single biggest question mark coming into Saturday’s game is Army’s ability to stop the run. Army’s rush defense ranks 115th nationally (out of 131 teams) in rush defense and is allowing an average of 193 yards on the ground. They’ve given up 220 yards or more of rushing five times this season. The Midshipmen are the nation’s seventh-ranked rushing attack (Army sits second, nationally) averaging 239 yards per game.
Expect Navy Head Coach Ken Niumatalolo to run fullback Daba Fofana up the middle and quarterback Xavier Arline off tackle until the Army defense shows they can stop the run.
For what it’s worth, Army’s second-ranked rushing attack averages 304 yards per game, and Navy’s rushing defense is ranked fourth nationally yielding only 85 yards per game.
Creative Play Calling
Both Niumatalolo and Army Head Coach Jeff Monken come from the Paul Johnson coaching tree and run his flexbone offense. But over time, there’s been a subtle evolutionary divergence in the two playbooks. With these two teams being mirror images of each other, it promises to be a tight, low-scoring affair. Only once in the last eight games has either team scored over 21 points. The total points scored in that eight-year span has never hit 40 (38 three times).
Look for a couple of wrinkles to loosen up the defenses on Saturday, especially on Army’s offense. Monken has utilized unbalanced lines more and more over the past two seasons and has incorporated end-around plays and, on occasion, power-rushing options this season.
The big dice roll is with whoever goes to the air first and most often. Neither team has a strong passing attack, although Army is probably better through the air. That might just be the key on Saturday, as the Black Knights will likely have to match a couple of Navy rushing scores.
The Last Word
You can throw the records out the window for this one. Both Army and Navy know exactly what they’re going to face on Saturday and they’ll be ready. Both of these teams played better in the second half of the season. The deciding difference in this game will be Army’s ability to stop the Midshipmen. Navy’s second-half surge leads to another instance of them singing second.