By DAN GELSTON
PHILADELPHIA — Army vs. Navy always ranks as the five-star game on the schedule for each service academy.
Nothing tops the regular season finale in pride, pageantry and prestige.
The Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy is indeed up for grabs, too, and Army has serious incentive — other than the obvious motivation — to beat Navy this season in the annual game. But win or lose, Army’s season ends on Saturday. For Navy — like it has for most of the Ken Niumatalolo Era — there is another game to play. A bowl game and another opportunity to fine-tune an ultra-consistent program.
The Midshipmen come to Lincoln Financial Field, home of the NFL’s Eagles, on Saturday looking to extend their series-record winning streak with their 11th straight victory over the Black Knights. Before Navy started its run, the longest winning streak in the series, started in 1890, was only five games. Navy opened as an 8-point favorite over the Black Knights in their 113th meeting, putting win No. 11 firmly on the horizon.
But there is more to every Navy season than just this game. Under Niumatalolo, a postseason berth has become almost automatic.
The Midshipmen (7-4) rebounded from a 5-7 season last year to play Arizona State in the Fight Hunger Bowl on Dec. 29 in San Francisco. Niumatalolo took over for Paul Johnson in 2007 in time to coach in the Poinsettia Bowl, then led the Midshipmen to three straight bowl games on his own. In fact, Navy had made a bowl game from 2003-2010 until last season’s stumble, solidifying itself as the class of the service academies, and earning bragging rights for more than the CIC trophy.
It wasn’t always this way, of course. When Johnson was hired in 2002, in fact, Navy was coming off the worst two-year span in its 123-year history (1-20) and had only two winning seasons in the previous 20 years. Navy plays an independent schedule and has no automatic tie-in to any of the bowls. But the Midshipmen have earned credibility and a recruiting boost with regular wins over the Black Knights and yearly holiday-time trips to sunny destinations.
“I don’t really know what the formula is, we just continue to try and win,” Niumatalolo said. “We just try and work hard. We’ve got hard-nosed kids, some good kids, just like Army does. Our biggest thing is play into the intangibles of teamwork, work ethic, discipline, all those things to overcome lack of size and speed.”
Last season’s backslide trickled into this season after a 1-3 start that included a 50-10 loss to Notre Dame. But a 28-21 overtime win over Air Force on Oct. 28 was the start of a five-game win streak that led to the Mids winning six of their final seven.
Beat Army, and the season becomes a special one.
“This is not a game you want to lose,” Navy receiver Bo Snelson said. “It’s not something I want to have happen for our senior class.”
Army is tired of ending its season against Navy. Like the Midshipmen, the Black Knights want to keep playing and get to a bowl game. Army won the Armed Forces Bowl in 2010 — its only bowl game since 1996 and second since 1988. But the Mids are somehow finding it easier to play into late December.
It wasn’t easy. Niumatalolo has built a winning tradition under the toughest of recruiting pitches: Football is the easiest thing to do in Annapolis, Md. No dreams of first-round, draft-pick stardom and multimillion dollar contracts here. Last week, Navy’s 28 seniors received their service assignments. Graduates of the Naval Academy serve a minimum of five years in the Navy or Marine Corps, while pilots serve eight years upon earning their wings.
There are day-to-day rules and traditions at the Naval Academy that supersede anything that happens on the football field, too. More than games lie ahead for Navy’s football players.
“We’re not trying to detract from any of the missions of what our great institution stands for,” Niumatalolo said. “That’s been the biggest battle. I think a lot of people understand it and embrace it. But there’s some people (at the academy) that think we’re just a football machine, trying to create a football powerhouse.
“And that’s not who we are.”
Maybe not in the traditional college football landscape. But on one Saturday each December, at least for a long while, there’s no team in the land better than Navy.