Air Force and Navy used to own the Commander In Chief’s Trophy series. Now they are the challengers trying to take back the trophy from Army. The winner of Saturday’s game in Annapolis would put itself in position to play for the CIC Trophy later this year.
In order for Air Force to earn that grand opportunity, the Falcons would have to do something they hadn’t done since 2011: Beat Navy on the road.
It is fascinating how some series in college football – think of Texas A&M versus Auburn – are dominated by road teams. Only one home team has won A&M-Auburn since the two teams became regular SEC West fighting partners in 2012.
Air Force-Navy is just the opposite. The Falcons and Midshipmen met in Maryland on the first Saturday of October knowing that no road team had won in this series since Navy won in Colorado Springs in 2012. Air Force knew it would be hard to bust through history – and a Navy team spitting mad after losing a 20-7 lead to Memphis the previous week. Yet, just when Air Force was about to be grounded by the Mids, the Falcons caught lightning in a bottle… and a fumble.
Navy had everything going its way midway through the fourth quarter.
Nine-point (multi-score) lead? Check. Possession of the ball? Check. Running the clock? Check. Quarterback Malcolm Perry had just converted a third down with a scramble.
Navy, up 21-12, didn’t need to score any more points at that specific stage of the game, with the clock under eight minutes and dripping away. If the Mids had merely used three running plays at that stage of the game, they would have punted near their own 40-yard line and given the ball back to Air Force with roughly 5:30 left, pinning the Falcons near their own 20. Air Force would have had to pass on almost every down, which is never a situation in which the Falcons or any academy team are comfortable.
Navy had to avoid just one thing: fumbling.
Air Force got the ball at the Midshipmen 37.
A quick score followed.
When Navy led 21-12, Air Force might have been a threat to score, but under the situation outlined above, the Falcons were likely to score with only two or three minutes remaining. Navy had been in position to maneuver the game into an endgame phase, where one first down could seal the game and Air Force would have had to take more chances on defense.
However, after the fumble and subsequent Air Force touchdown, there were more than five minutes left in the game. Navy couldn’t merely run out the clock. It had to solve a revived Air Force defense which had been rejuvenated by the recent turn of events. The Mids couldn’t do it, and Air Force – having Navy completely on its heels – roared downfield.
The Falcons sensed the eagerness of Navy’s linebackers to make a high-impact play. The Mids were so intent on jumping into the backfield to create a tackle for loss that Troy Calhoun was able to unveil misdirection passes which caught Navy’s defense way out of position. A huge gain on one such pass brought the ball inside the Navy 10. Air Force punched in a touchdown a short while later, and with just over three minutes left, Air Force – which was at death’s door just four and a half minutes earlier – led.
Navy, after the misery of 2018 and then the stinging come-from-ahead loss to Memphis in Week 5, badly needed to win this game. Sure, every CIC game is a must-win for academy programs, but Navy had a season from hell and then a highly annoying setback in Memphis. If the Mids were to avoid the kind of loss which could hijack yet another season and create a sense of free-fall, they needed to pull out this game.
Blowing double-digit leads in consecutive weeks could have opened the door for another season to cave in and become a disaster, akin to 2018.
What did Malcolm Perry – injured multiple times in the second half – have in the tank?
Plenty, as it turned out.
Not only did Perry lead the Mids down the field, he gave his all and risked his already-bruised body on a high-flying, flipping, do-or-die run which brought Navy inside the Air Force 3. The Midshipmen, who had converted a ballgame-deciding 4th-and-1 play moments earlier, overcame enormous obstacles and – with first and goal in their hands – finally regained a position of strength.
Perry scooted in off tackle, and Navy – after defending a final few downfield heaves from Air Force – had prevailed.
The game featured far fewer points than the 48-45 Navy win over Air Force in Annapolis in 2017, but much like that game, the Midshipmen lost a lead, only to reclaim it with a daring late drive.
While Air Force laments a precious opportunity which slipped away, Navy knows that it averted disaster and picked up a sorely needed morale-booster at home. If there were legitimate fears of continued failure in Annapolis, they evaporated into the night when Malcolm Perry delivered one of the most important drives of his Navy career.
The other story from academy football in Week 6 wasn’t nearly as happy. Army’s defense has a problem: It isn’t as good as 2018. Tulane and coach Willie Fritz solved the Black Knights to the tune of 42 points, 524 yards, and at least 200 yards both passing and rushing.
The most telling statistic of all: Tulane’s six scoring drives were all 68 yards or longer. There were no cheapies here. Tulane moved down the field and mowed down Army’s defense with regularity. Some of this might be due to Jay Bateman’s departure as defensive coordinator, but a part of this is also the change in personnel from last season. Every new season brings a new chemistry and a new set of combinations. After an off week, Army hoped to fix what was out of alignment against Morgan State.
This performance shows that while the defensive staff hasn’t figured out answers, the talent and cohesion on this defensive unit have also regressed from 2018 levels.
Army will try to see if it can solve its problems next week against Western Kentucky. Navy visits Tulsa, which blew a 21-point lead at SMU in Week 6, and Air Force tackles Fresno State in an important Mountain West game.