Air Force and Navy meet this upcoming Saturday in the first installment of the Commander In Chief’s Trophy series for 2019.
They enter the game from very different vantage points.
Air Force was supremely resourceful in a 41-24 win over San Jose State on Friday night in Colorado Springs, while Navy blew a 20-7 lead – and complete tactical control of the run of play – in a 35-23 loss at Memphis. Air Force scrambled and adjusted to win, while Navy started brilliantly and then – by its coach’s own admission – allowed one devastating play to have a damaging domino effect on the rest of the game.
Air Force has to regather emotional fuel for the next battle, while Navy has to figure out how to sustain an emotionally engaged performance through a 60-minute game with all of its ups and downs.
Let’s start with the victorious Falcons.
Quarterback Donald Hammond III sat out at the start of Friday’s game with a sore ankle, but Isaiah Sanders, his replacement, got injured early in the contest. Hammond had to play.
He answered the call. Air Force’s offense functioned brilliantly under Hammond’s leadership: over 500 total yards and more than 375 on the ground. The Falcons scored 41 points despite two lost fumbles (which they will need to clean up when they head to Annapolis this coming weekend). Air Force couldn’t have asked for much more from its offense, given the circumstances.
The offense, however, wasn’t the only resourceful unit for the Falcons. The defense also turned adversity into achievement against San Jose State’s offense.
The Spartans consistently moved the ball against Air Force. Yet, the Falcons’ defense made the game’s biggest plays, stopping San Jose State on four separate fourth downs in AFA territory, one of them being on the 1-yard line. Air Force stopped SJSU on third down from the Falcons’ 8-yard line, forcing a 25-yard field goal. Air Force’s red-zone and short-field defensive performances defined the game.
This Mountain West battle easily could have gone down to the wire, but Air Force’s numerous fourth-down stops changed that equation.
Against Navy, you know – everyone knows – that both teams will get into 4th and 1 or 4th and 2 situations. Air Force’s defense will certainly carry a considerable quantity of confidence into Annapolis after this clutch display against San Jose State. Yes, Navy is a lot better than SJSU, but Air Force might have developed the muscle memory needed to win on the road, a tough assignment in any CIC Trophy series game.
Navy won’t carry the same good vibes into its encounter with Air Force. It is true that the offense shows signs of being regularly good, but that’s part of the point with the Midshipmen right now: They show signs… but have not yet proven themselves to the fullest extent.
Navy was sailing along with a 20-7 lead late in the second quarter against Memphis. The Tigers’ offense consisted of one 75-yard scoring play, and nothing else. Then, after Navy took that 20-7 lead, Memphis returned the ensuing kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown.
After enduring a 12-point loss in which Navy’s offense scored just three points in the second half, Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo flatly stated that the kickoff return by Memphis took the wind out of his team.
Such is the test of football: Hugely negative moments have to be calmly absorbed. The opponent might soar with confidence. The push and pull of competition require resolve and resilience in the face of an opposing team’s improved play.
Navy never matched Memphis’s burst of energy early in the second half, and as a result, a great first-half performance was wasted.
Navy outgained Memphis 292-98 in the first half, holding the ball for nearly 23 of the first 30 minutes. It was the Navy template to near-perfection, but that one lapse on special teams and an inability to regroup at halftime sank the Midshipmen on the road.
The kickoff truly was a before-and-after moment. Navy’s offense went from brilliant to barren, and in the second half, the Memphis offense repeatedly hit big plays to score three touchdowns.
Navy was not tested in its first two games, a reality which might have burned the Mids in Game 3. Now that this team has tasted the nasty pendulum swings of in-game hardship, it can face Air Force with a much more conscious awareness that like any good football team, it has to ride the ups and downs with a levelheaded mindset. If Navy can find that inner strength, it can put its season back on track against Air Force.
A final note in this week’s update: Army was idle in Week 5, a necessary break after a distracted performance against Morgan State. Army faces AAC up-and-comer Tulane. The Green Wave are a factor in the AAC West race after knocking off Houston in Week 4. We will see if having two weeks to prepare for Tulane enabled Jeff Monken to reorient his players and refocus their attention after the subpar display against Morgan State.