by Justyn Spanski
Phil Steele Publications Associate/PhilSteele.com Contributor
**NOTE**: Time of game listed is Eastern Standard Time. Top 25 rankings reflect those of this week’s College Football Playoff poll. All PS #’s of players mentioned can be found in Phil Steele’s 2019 College Football Preview. All statistics, pass efficiency defense ratings, and power ratings can be found on PhilSteele.com as a subscriber to Phil Steele Plus. Subscribe to Phil Steele Plus right now for just $44.00 through the Super Bowl on the PhilSteele.com Store. Follow Phil Steele on Twitter to receive all of Phil’s insight and analysis for this week’s upcoming games and all college football news @philsteele042.
In college football, there is only one regular season game that is played the week after the conference championship games. This game is reserved for two teams who represent their academy, their branch of service, and their nation. These two teams are the Army Black Knights of West Point, New York and the Navy Midshipmen of Annapolis, Maryland. Both teams boast strong histories that are rooted in their prestigious academies that have produced presidents Ulysses S. Grant, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Jimmy Carter as well as Heisman winners Doc Blanchard (Army, 1945), Glenn Davis (Army, 1946), Pete Dawkins (Army, 1958), and Roger Staubach (Navy, 1963).
Philadelphia will once again take center stage for the 89th time in this historic rivalry as the Black Knights and Midshipmen will square off at Lincoln Financial Field. Rain is expected all day leading up to kickoff, and that could be an advantage for both teams’ run-heavy offense that features the iconic triple-option. Despite the rain, the home of the Philadelphia Eagles will be at a maximum capacity of 69,176 Saturday afternoon and in the lower bowl of stadium there will be a large divided crowd of cadets in black and grey trench coats cheering on their respective school.
In 2016, Army ended a 14-game losing streak to their rivals with a 21-17 upset. Since then, the cadets from West Point have won three in a row in the rivalry and will look to keep the winning streak going strong. However, Navy enters this matchup at 9-2 on the year and ranked No. 23 in the final College Football Playoff rankings. The Midshipmen are a 10 ½ point favorite this year, but Army head coach Jeff Monken will have his team prepared and focused as they look to sing their alma mater last at the conclusion of the matchup for the fourth consecutive year.
This matchup is always an exciting one as it features two of the nation’s best rushing attacks and more importantly, honors America and its servicemen and servicewomen. Below we will take a closer look at the 120th edition of America’s Game and what makes this game so unique and special.
Stay in the present.
Inspirational words from @1stCavalryDiv & Vietnam Vet COL Tony Nadal. #FirstTeam #Airmobile #GoArmy #BeatNavy pic.twitter.com/fWI98V7A63
— Army Football (@ArmyWP_Football) December 13, 2019
WHO: Army vs. No. 23 Navy
WHEN: Saturday, December 14 3:00 PM
WHERE: Lincoln Financial Field, Philadelphia, PA
HOW TO WATCH: CBS
As mentioned previously, both teams feature run-heavy offenses that rely on the classic triple-option. If you are a lover of hard-nosed, physical, old school football then this is the game for you…and yes, the fullback is heavily used and relied upon.
For Army, that man at fullback is senior Connor Slomka who lines up in the backfield at a hefty 6’0 240 lbs. Slomka enters the game second on the team in rushing with 572 yards and seven touchdowns. When not running the ball, Slomka is an effective and physical blocker who is quick to the point of attack and not afraid to take on linebackers who match his size.
Across the field from the Black Knights, Navy fullback Jamale Carothers has had a late season surge that has placed him top on the Midshipmen’s depth chart at fullback. In Navy’s last outing against Houston, the sophomore ran for 188 yards and five touchdowns. Carothers has reached the endzone 13 times on the year with an impressive 8.4 yards per carry. Junior Nelson Smith will also see carries in the backfield and will be called upon to block as he is the bigger of the two Annapolis fullbacks at 5’9 215 lbs.
Despite Carothers late season emergence, Midshipmen quarterback Malcolm Perry still leads the Navy offense and rushing attack. After seeing nine starts at slot back last season, Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo has moved Perry back to his regular position under center following the graduation of quarterbacks Garret Lewis and Zach Abey. Recently named the American Athletic Conference Offensive Player of the Year, Perry has been a nightmare for opposing defenses, running for 1,500 yards and 19 touchdowns while adding 1,027 yards passing and another half dozen touchdowns.
Senior left guard David Forney and junior right guard Peter Nestrowitz have been the key men on the offensive line this season. The two guards have been instrumental in the Navy run game, helping the Midshipmen average a whopping 361 rushing yards per game.
The stage does not get any bigger than this, we’re ready to ride.#NavyFB | #BuiltDifferent | #BeatArmy
🎥: @TheQSchneider pic.twitter.com/2WyDAhDVhh
— Navy Football (@NavyFB) December 12, 2019
Kelvin Hopkins returned under center this year for Monken and Army, and he has had an effective year running the ball as well. The PS#142 senior quarterback leads the team with 619 yards on the ground and seven touchdowns. Hopkins is an upgrade throwing the ball when compared to previous Black Knights quarterbacks, but he has struggled in that category during his final season at West Point, completing only 43.1% of his passes for 501 yards and a 4-4 TD-INT ratio.
On defense, Cole Christiansen has been reliable and provided great leadership at inside linebacker for defensive coordinator John Loose. The senior is without question the leader of the defense and his play demonstrates, leading Army with 103 tackles on the season.
In the secondary, senior Elijah Riley is another strong leader on the veteran defense. Riley ranks second behind Christiansen in tackles with 74 and four sacks. The Thorpe award semifinalist has picked off three passes on the year and has six pass breakups.
For Navy, sophomore Diego Fagot has been the catalyst for first year DC Brian Newberry. A member of the AAC First Team All-Conference, Fagot has racked up 85 stops on the year to go along with six tackles for loss. Opposite Fagot, junior Jacob Springer has provided good quarterback pressure at the striker position (hybrid linebacker). Springer ranks first amongst the Midshipmen defenders in sacks and quarterback hurries with seven.
Rain and sloppy conditions tomorrow will certainly have both teams looking to impose their will on their rival with a strong running game and long drives that control possession. Despite the rain and cold Philadelphia weather, both teams will give it their all as they look to secure a defining victory for their respective academy.
WHAT MAKES AMERICA’S GAME SO SPECIAL:
Honor, dedication, commitment, sacrifice, respect, execution, accountability, and country. These are just a few adjectives one can use to describe the football teams of the United States Military Academy and the United States Naval Academy. These two programs thrive off of the very embodiments that their prestigious academies preach from the moment they enter their freshman year as plebes until they graduate and beyond.
For 365 days a year, players on both teams prepare with one motto in mind: Beat Army or Beat Navy. This rallying cry and motto is displayed throughout each teams’ facilities and weight rooms and they dedicate countless of hours in the weight room and on the practice field year round in hopes that one extra rep will be the difference in defeating their rival 256 miles away.
Two words. One goal. #BeatNavy pic.twitter.com/9tNIaaG4Lp
— Army Football (@ArmyWP_Football) December 9, 2019
Above all, this game is about country. Although they belong to different branches, both teams play for America. Taking in the pregame festivities is highly recommended as the broadcast does an excellent job of featuring the cadets on the field before the game as well as the national anthem that is sung by the West Point and Annapolis student choirs in a joint effort. And of course, the flyover is a special sight to behold even if you are watching the game on television from the comfort of your home or a friend’s.
As is the case in football, one team will secure a glorious and hard earned victory on Saturday while the other will suffer the anguish of defeat. For the cadets who will be playing in this game, many could have chosen to attend another institution to further their academic and football careers, but they did not. Instead they decided to attend the United States Military Academy or United States Naval Academy to further their academic and football careers and most importantly, serve America. None will be drafted to the NFL, and very few, if any, will receive an offer to sign as an undrafted free agent with one of the 32 teams in the league. Instead, they will go on to serve the United States of America and continue the fight for freedom that so many of us take for granted each morning when we wake up.
If you have the opportunity to, watch tomorrow’s game with a family member or loved one who is a veteran and thank him or her for their service to this country. And if you are a veteran, thank you for your sacrifice to protect the freedom of this great nation.
So, in conclusion, there will be one clear winner Saturday and contrary to popular belief, these winners will not have played a single snap in Philadelphia and at the conclusion of the game they will not have a single grass stain on their uniform. The clear winner of the rivalry is us as citizens of the United States of America and it will be brought to us by the cadets on the gridiron as well as the countless men and women serving this nation domestically and abroad. Enjoy America’s Game and God Bless America.