It’s eight days and counting to Army – Navy, and if there were any doubts, the players have been counting.
“I’m totally ready. I hate this whole three-weeks-off thing,” Army linebacker Nate Combs said. “The coaches, I think, like it a lot more than the players do because they can prepare. As players, we’re ready to play. You could give us five days off and we’d be ready to play Navy. Healing up is great, especially because it’s been a rough season, but I’m ready to play.”
Surely part of the Black Knights’ desire to get back onto the field is based on the 63-32 shellacking imposed on them by Temple in their last game, but mental preparation for their annual classic against the Midshipmen begins on the first day of spring practice. The extra added attraction for Army — as it’s already defeated Air Force this season — is a victory over Navy would clinch the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy, awarded to the service academy that wins the round-robin series among the teams. How long has it been since Army did so? A senior on this team would have been a kindergartner when the Black Knights last won the trophy in 1996.
“Obviously, that brings something to it,” Army coach Rich Ellerson said. “We didn’t win much, but we won just enough to bring a little extra drama to this game. From the moment these guys got to West Point, every building and everybody’s front door says, ‘Beat Navy’ and ‘Beat Air Force.’ There is so much on the table for them.”
Army enters the game with a 2-9 record, and a loss would leave it with the team’s worst record since finishing 0-13 in 2003. At the same time, a victory would represent the team’s ultimate aspiration.
“Unfortunately, it is true,” quarterback Trent Steelman said. “We don’t think about that as a team, and that’s not what we ever strive for, but it is. They say that if you go 2-9 and win the CIC Trophy that you’ve had a good season. We have wanted a lot of things to go differently this season, and they haven’t for one reason or another. So, we have this opportunity in front of us, and it’s there for the taking.”
In Steelman’s three previous seasons as a starter, Army has gotten close enough to believe a victory is achievable. After losing to the Midshipmen 34-0 in 2008, the teams Steelman has led have lost 17-3 (in 2009); 31-17 (2010) and 27-21 last season. Since the Black Knights’ last victory, in 2001, they have lost to Navy by an average of just under 24 points per game.
“We have definitely made a lot of progress over the years, in terms of closing the talent gap,” he said. “I think that was the biggest thing that we faced from my freshman year up until now. I believe they have always been a little bit more talented and skilled than we have, but I don’t think there is a difference now. I think it’s going to come down to who wants it more this year, and who goes out and executes the offense and defense better.”
“It would put an exclamation point on what we wanted to do,” defensive end Jarrett Mackey said. “I came into the prep school with Trent and we beat Navy there, and said that we’re going to go up to West Point and do it there, too. Now that it’s our senior year, it’s our last chance to do it. We are trying to keep our goals. We said we wanted to bring the CIC back, we wanted to beat Navy and we wanted to go to a bowl game. We got a bowl game our sophomore year, and now it’s time to get our next two checklists for our senior class and the team and for our graduates and the academy. It just means so much more to us. I bet you’ll see everybody start to tear up, because it’s been so long. It’s too emotional. It’s just one of those things in life that you just check off the box. It would be a great feeling.”
Another countdown for seniors on the team is how many days until they may be serving overseas. As freshmen they entered the academy with the President having promised an end to American involvement in the war in the Middle East; so much for that campaign promise.
“This is an Army at war,” Ellerson said. “We have 60,000-plus soldiers deployed in harm’s way. That’s a part of their reality, especially these seniors. When they made that decision to take this challenge on, that was absolutely the situation the nation was looking at. They raised their hand and said, ‘I’m in.’ I think we can all feel good about that.”
There remains one more thing the players can feel good about.
“People asked what it meant to me after we beat Air Force, and it was hard to put into words,” Combs said. “I can’t wait. I’m ready to play.”
Navy third-string quarterback Ralph Montalvo remains in a medically induced coma following an automobile accident in which he was a passenger on Thanksgiving near his home in South Florida. His condition is listed as serious, but stable.
One Army player who has missed recent games to injury will return against Navy; two others remain questionable. Sophomore safety Hayden Pierce has missed the last six games due to a collarbone injury, but will play. Senior left tackle Ben Jebb, who’s missed the last two games with foot and ankle injuries, may be able to play; running back Terry Baggett, who broke his knee cap against Northern Illinois Sept. 15, has been practicing.