A general’s pep talk about actual life-and-death battles emerged as a driving force this season for the Army team.
In the Army, the general said, you win or you die.
Far more consequential than bragging rights on the field, but useful for a team that no longer ends its season against Navy.
“It is dramatic,” team captain Cole Christiansen said. “But I think it’s helped us a lot.”
Christiansen has been part of Army’s turnaround from perennial losing program to its lofty status today: ranked in the AP Top 25 for the first time since 1996, on a seven-game winning streak, headed to a bowl game and a 7-point favorite in Saturday’s 119th meeting against Navy.
The Army-Navy rivalry has often been known as patriotic — and for years, one of the most lopsided in sports. Navy hooked an anchor to the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy with a series-best 14-game winning streak from 2002-2015.
The No. 22 Black Knights (9-2) are on top these days, winners of two straight in the series headed into Saturday’s game at Lincoln Financial Field, home of the Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles. Last season’s game was an instant classic: Bennett Moehring narrowly missed a 48-yard field goal in the snow on the final play and Army held off Navy 14-13 to win the CIC Trophy for the first time since 1996.
Navy leads 60-51-7.
President Donald Trump will officiate the coin toss Saturday in his first Army-Navy game as president, where he’s also expected to make an announcement concerning the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Trump was at the 2016 game as president-elect. He will be the 10th sitting president to attend, a tradition that began with Theodore Roosevelt in 1901. Presidents, by custom, sit on the Army side of the stadium for one half and the Navy side for the other.
If history holds, Trump will likely see a close call: the last three games have been decided by a total of 9 points and only once since 2010 has a team won by more than a touchdown.
“I feel a great sense of responsibility to make sure we win,” Army coach Jeff Monken said. “We’ve won some close games and we didn’t win some of those the first couple of years I was there.”
Navy (3-9) will have its first losing season since 2002 and won just two games in its fourth season in the American Athletic Conference.
“People ask what it was like to have the streak. The streak doesn’t matter,” Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo said. “Just like the loss doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is (Saturday).”
Christiansen, a junior linebacker, said Monken has built Army into winners.
“The mentality of the teams before us vs. what it is now, we just don’t want to lose,” Christiansen said.
Army will play Houston in the Armed Forces Bowl and was ranked for the first time in 22 years. But for the upper classmen who experienced each milestone, no thrill has compared to snapping the miserable losing streak to Navy in 2016.
“The Top 25, we were excited the day we found out we were in,” Christiansen said. “But my freshman year, that was probably the coolest thing. I’ve never seen a larger group of people from across the country get so excited about one event. We were getting letters and emails and calls from old grads. People that are stationed in Afghanistan were calling us. It was pretty special.”
Some other things to note about the Army-Navy game:
Navy lost seven straight games, its longest losing streak since 2011. Included in that stretch were losses to five teams (Temple, Houston, Notre Dame, Cincinnati, UCF) playing in bowl games.
“This is definitely the toughest schedule since I’ve been here and I think people just quickly gloss over that,” Niumatalolo said. “It’s OK, though. They ask you to win. I know (athletic director) Chet (Gladchuk) doesn’t want to hear that. He says it’s excuses. You’ve got to win. But traveling halfway across the world to start the first game (at Hawaii), there are just so many factors.”
Navy joined the AAC in 2015 and has watched as programs like UCF emerged to make the conference perhaps the best outside the Power Five.
“Everybody in our league is trying to be the next person when expansion happens,” Niumatalolo said. “‘Hey, look at us. Come pick us. We’ve got the facilities.’ Everybody’s ramped their game up, to their credit.”
THIRSTY FOR A WIN
Christiansen has had a change of heart after once telling his mother he wouldn’t join the military.
“There’s nothing else in the world that I want to do other than serve the country,” Christiansen said. “They talk about drinking the Kool-Aid. I’ve been on a double IV of the Kool-Aid since I got here.”
The general’s pep talk has been part of that.
“The mindset is, you win or you die,” he said. “When we go out on Saturdays, it’s pretty tough to beat a bunch of guys that would rather die than lose.”
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Army: QB Kelvin Hopkins has 783 yards rushing and 10 touchdowns. He’s thrown six TDs but only attempted 81 passes all season.
Navy: Malcolm Perry has 1,035 yards rushing and seven touchdowns pulling double duty as running back and quarterback. He’s ninth on Navy’s career rushing list.
More AP college football: https://apnews.com/Collegefootball and https://twitter.com/AP—Top25