The world of service academy football has been turned upside-down if you cheer for West Point. It has been restored to a degree (though not yet completely) if you root for the Midshipmen or the Air Force Academy.
In a decade marked by trading places among the service academy programs, the last year of the decade features that familiar pattern.
The “trading places” dynamic in this decade of academy football began with Air Force and Navy trading Commander In Chief’s Trophy championships, with the two schools winning on each other’s home field in 2011 and 2012, then exchanging home-field wins each of the next seven years in the series. That is one example of “trading places.”
The next big switcheroo in academy football was Army’s steady rise to an 11-win team, a process which occurred in stages over three seasons, from 2016 through 2018. Army snapped Navy’s 14-game winning streak in the Army-Navy Game, and became in many ways what Navy had been in 2015 under decorated quarterback Keenan Reynolds.
Army consistently made the plays Navy failed to make, a complete role reversal from the usually close Army-Navy Game dramas before Jeff Monken arrived in West Point. The two programs truly had swapped identities over the past three years. Navy was an 11-win program in 2015. Three years later, Army had evolved into the very same thing.
Now, in 2019 – just before the end of this decade – one more trade of places is in progress. It continued on Saturday, to the chagrin of Army fans and the delight of Navy fans.
Army got outrushed for the second straight week, this time by Western Kentucky. (Yes, it’s true.) Tulane has a genuinely good team, so when the Green Wave, a realistic contender for the AAC West Division title, put a big number on Army in Michie Stadium, the Black Knights could at least say that they were whipped by a good opponent.
Western Kentucky, a program which plummeted in the two years immediately following former coach Jeff Brohm’s departure for Purdue, is trying to recover under new coach Tyson Helton. The Hilltoppers have forged an encouraging start to their 2019 season, giving 5-1 UAB its only loss, but Western Kentucky has also feasted on table scraps, with a win over an FCS team and a victory over 1-5 Old Dominion.
Army didn’t have to be as good as an 11-win team to beat WKU. An 8-win-quality team should handle the Hilltoppers.
Army not only failed to beat Western Kentucky; it got dominated.
The Black Knights had only three first downs in the first two and a half quarters. Their only score of the entire game was a garbage-time touchdown well after the outcome had been decided.
The inability to outrush Tulane was one thing; not being able to outrush WKU shows that a trading of places has occurred for Army, in relationship to Navy.
Last year, Navy endured a miserable season for many reasons, but the number one reason was that the Midshipmen’s offensive line simply couldn’t block opposing defensive fronts. Navy got shoved around by most of its opponents, which smothered Malcolm Perry and didn’t give him a chance to get in the open field with regularity.
That is happening now for Army. Kelvin Hopkins has shown he can orchestrate this offense; he proved it last year. Hopkins isn’t forgetting how to play football; his linemen aren’t creating the opportunities needed for him to thrive.
The Army team of 2019 bears a strong resemblance to the Navy team of 2018. Trading places continues, as the Black Knights prepare for Georgia State next week.
Let’s briefly note what Navy did. The Midshipmen faced Tulsa – a team which had unbeaten SMU on the ropes a week earlier – and took care of business. The Midshipmen endured a very slow start. Tulsa missed a chip-shot field goal and helped Navy survive the first 10 minutes of the game. Once the second quarter arrived, Navy shook off the cobwebs and dominated. Navy won a tricky road game with a long commute.
Now the Midshipmen get to face a bad South Florida team at home. There will be a bowl game in Navy’s 2019 future. The next step is to stay in the AAC West race now that Memphis has lost to Temple. It is anyone’s game in the division. Wins over SMU and Tulane could lift Navy into the AAC title game.
Air Force handled business against Fresno State. The game was significant chiefly because it was a conference contest, but also because Fresno was the defending Mountain West champion. Even though this is a down year for the Bulldogs, they still carried an identity and reputation. Air Force had to knock down those ghosts and establish itself as the superior team.
In the first half, those ghosts lingered. Fresno State scored 24 points and looked like Air Force’s equal.
In the second half, the Falcons planted their flag and shut out the Bulldogs, en route to an encouraging 43-24 victory which enabled the team to turn the page from the agonizing loss at Navy a week earlier.
Air Force now faces tough – and different – tests in the Mountain West. Next week’s game is a trip to the islands to play Hawaii and its dynamic offense. The Falcons then face Utah State, the foremost challenger to both the Falcons and Boise State in the Mountain West’s Mountain Division.
We have learned a lot about Army this season, and not for the best of reasons. We will learn more about Navy and Air Force in the coming weeks, as conference play builds toward bigger showdowns.