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2012 Army-Navy game preview: Rivalry gives, rivalry takes away

Army is a disappointing 2-9 this season, but a rivalry win on Saturday would give the Black Knights their first Commander-in-Chief's Trophy in 16 years.

Rob Carr

We are approaching the three-year anniversary of Barry Alvarez spilling the beans on the Big Ten's expansion plans, thereby setting in motion an incredible EXPANSIONAPALOOZA domino effect. (How do you plan to celebrate?)

One of our constant complaints regarding this ongoing mostly male soap opera is the loss of rivalry and tradition, but a lot of "tradition" is just "stuff we do a lot." For every tough loss (Nebraska-Colorado, Pitt-West Virginia, Missouri-Kansas), we also lose a few games whose absences we don't actually notice (Colorado-Baylor, Missouri-Iowa State, West Virginia-USF).

Still, there have been losses. And as fans of schools like West Virginia or Missouri have begun to learn, losing rivalries hurts because you lose an opportunity to salvage a disappointing season. West Virginia went from 5-0 and fifth in the country to 5-5 and on the brink of missing a bowl; they rallied for 7-5, but if the seventh win were against Pittsburgh (instead of Kansas), perhaps that would feel a little bit better. Meanwhile, as a freshman at Missouri I was once told by a dorm mate that Mizzou could go 1-26 in basketball, but as long as that one win was against Kansas, it was a successful season. I still vehemently disagree with that notion, but there's no questioning that making a rival feel pain can alleviate some of your own in ways that games like WVU-Kansas or Missouri-Tennessee don't do just yet.

See the Navy, Army uniforms || OddsShark picks Navy

Just ask Army. The Black Knights are in the middle of a frustrating campaign. Just two years after winning the Armed Forces Bowl and finishing 7-6 under Rich Ellerson (it was their best season since 1996), they stand at 2-9 with double-digit losses to Stony Brook (an FCS team, albeit a pretty good one) and Eastern Michigan (1-10 versus teams not named Army in 2012). Their defense has been the worst in FBS by a decent margin this season (though in fairness 13 of the 27 names on their most recent defensive two-deep are freshmen or sophomores, including six of 10 on the line), and a loss to Navy on Saturday would finish off their worst campaign since 2003.

A loss on Saturday would be both Army's 11th straight to Navy and a fitting cap to an awful season. But … a win?

With a win, Army would cap its most successful three-win season ever, not only because the Black Knights could finally put an end to a decade-long streak of Navy superiority, but also because it would give them their first Commander-in-Chief's Trophy in 16 years. You see, one of Army's two wins was a strange, near-flawless, 41-21 win over Air Force on November 3, and another unexpected victory on Saturday would make Army 2-0 against the service academies. Who cares if they go 1-9 against everybody else at that point?

Rivalries are a double-edged sword, of course. They can save a bad season or they can put a giant smudge on a good one. Navy is in the midst of the latter. From September 17 of last season through September 29 of the 2012 campaign, Navy went 4-10. The Midshipmen looked mostly lost since the departure of star quarterback Ricky Dobbs, and it appeared that head coach Ken Niumatalolo's tenure in Annapolis had turned sour. A young team green at quarterback and in the trenches started the season 1-3 with losses to Notre Dame, Penn State and San Jose State by a combined 79 points. But the Middies beat Air Force in overtime in Colorado Springs on October 6, and things began to turn around.

Led by an intriguing freshman quarterback, Keenan Reynolds, they have won six of their last seven games. They took out Indiana by one point, romped over New Orleans Bowl participant East Carolina by 28 points, and polished off Florida Atlantic and Texas State to clinch bowl eligibility. They will face off against Arizona State in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl on December 29, but if you could give Navy fans just one win in their two remaining contests, it is obvious which one they would choose.

They say you can throw out the records in a rivalry game; in the case of Army-Navy, however, that typically isn't true. The last time the team with the lesser record won a game in this series was in 2000, when 0-10 Army beat 1-9 Navy. The last time a demonstrably worse team won a game in this rivalry was probably 1991, when 0-10 Navy beat 4-6 Army. So in compiling five more regular season wins than the 2-9 Black Knights, the 7-4 Midshipmen have likely already proved their superiority. Their odds of moving their rivalry winning streak into a second decade are strong.

That said, Army does have a couple of things going for it. First, Ellerson's Black Knights tend to defend service academies well.

[S]omehow Army’s defense found its footing against service academy rival Air Force, which was limited to 103 rushing yards — 263 below its season average — in a 41-21 loss at West Point on Nov. 3. That effort continued a trend for the Black Knights, who have held Air Force and Navy below their rushing averages in all seven service academy games during the Ellerson era. […]

"Army has basically said, ‘We’re going to stay in one defensive front and make you out-execute us.’ We’ve done that well at times and not so well at other times," [Navy offensive coordinator Ivin] Jasper said. "It’s a good defensive plan and their kids are coached up. They know where to line up, where to be. It’s going to be smash-mouth football on Saturday."

Jasper said Army’s primary strategy is to take away the option pitch and force Navy to run between the tackles. Jasper said the Mids need to take what the defense gives, and in recent meetings with the Black Knights that has meant a steady dose of the quarterback and fullback running the mid-line option.

Army could also potentially take advantage of the simple fact that Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds is indeed a freshman. Not that you could tell so far. Navy has lost just once since Reynolds took over as the starter. He has rushed for 585 yards and nine touchdowns on the season, and perhaps more importantly, he can hit open receivers downfield. He obviously isn't asked to pass much (11 times per start, basically), but he is averaging 16.4 yards per completion and completing 58 percent of his passes for the season. That is basically all you can ask of a Flexbone quarterback. Actually, it might be more.

  • Keenan Reynolds, first six starts (2012): 108 carries, 545 yards, eight TDs; 36-for-67 passing, 622 yards, eight TDs, one INT
  • Ricky Dobbs, first six starts (2008-09): 136 carries, 552 yards, 11 TDs (224 yards and four touchdowns came in his very first start); 22-for-36 passing, 432 yards, three TDs, two INTs

Dobbs' per-pass numbers are better, but Reynolds is being asked to pass quite a bit more out of the gates than Dobbs was, and Dobbs' starts did not come until late in his sophomore season.

Reynolds is worth watching, in other words, either because he will run the option with aplomb (he has averaged 5.9 yards per carry in his last three contests), or because he will falter in the moment. Seven months ago, he was running track for Goodpasture Christian high school in Antioch, Tennessee, and now he is the featured player in college football's featured rivalry. Reynolds has flown under the radar thus far. That ends on Saturday.

Six Other Players To Watch

Gee Gee Greene, Navy. The senior slotback has been an explosive presence for the Midshipmen for quite a while, having rushed for nearly 2,000 yards in his career. But the slotback is often the surprise aspect of the Flexbone, used sparingly and with great effect. Greene has averaged 7.1 yards per carry for his career but averaged just 4.8 carries per game in his first three and a half seasons. That has changed recently. In the last five games, Greene has carried 12.6 times per game, and his per-carry average in that span (7.3 yards) has actually gone UP. He rushed for 281 combined yards against East Carolina and Troy. He is the most explosive player on the field. He is ALSO Navy's second-leading receiver, with 14 catches for 280 yards.

Trent Steelman, Army. The Black Knight quarterback is playing in his fourth Army-Navy game. Career stats in three previous games: 42 carries for 149 yards and a touchdown, 22-for-46 passing for 282 yards, three touchdowns and an interception. Not great, not terrible. Steelman is in the middle of his most sustained run of rushing success, however: He has rushed for at least 100 yards in six of the last seven games, and he makes for a lovely option combination with junior back Raymond Maples, who has himself rushed for 1,059 yards and a pair of touchdowns this season.

Chevaughn Lawrence, Army, and Brandon Turner, Navy. If there is a big play made in the passing game on Saturday, it will likely either come from Lawrence (18 catches, 313 yards) or Turner (19 catches, 248 yards, three scores). Navy's passing game is a bit more well-rounded, but with Army it's almost Lawrence or nothing. He is the only Black Knight averaging more than one catch per game. (This makes a lot more sense when you realize that Army throws just 10 passes per game … and only completes about four of them.)

Keegan Wetzel, Navy, and Nate Combs, Army. It's all about the company you keep. Navy's defense ranks just 90th in Def. F/+ this season, but compared to Army's defense the Midshipmen have been Alabama-esque in 2012. But don't blame Combs for Army's struggle. He and Wetzel have produced nearly identical stat line as primary blitzing linebackers, though Combs has done so in just nine games.

  • Wetzel: 11 games, 49.0 tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss, six sacks, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery, one pass defensed
  • Combs: 9 games, 41.5 tackles, 12.0 tackles for loss, six sacks, two forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries, four passes defensed

Sophomore tackle Richard Glover (7.5 tackles for loss, two sacks) has also made some solid plays for an aggressive Army defense that has actually made more tackles for loss and defensed more passes than Navy's. Army's failures have come via a combination of fundamental mistakes (missed tackles, et al) and injuries. In 2012, 15 Black Knights have logged at least 10.0 tackles; only six have played in all 11 games. Army will start three true freshmen in the defense's back eight (one at Rover, one at free safety, one at corner); the saving grace for the Black Knights is that they were indeed disciplined and interesting against Air Force. But they haven't been against anybody else.

F/+ Pick: Navy by 6.4.
Bill's Pick: Navy by 7.

Navy's defense gives the Midshipmen a clear edge. But the offenses are comparable, and some key youth (on offense for Navy, on defense for Army) could sway this game in either direction. This rivalry game will cast either a shine on Army's otherwise disappointing campaign or on Navy's turnaround year.

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