AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo., —
If there are two teams that shouldn’t mind a 9:30 a.m. kickoff, it’s Navy and Air Force. The Midshipmen and Falcons are used to getting up at the crack of dawn.
“I really don’t think it’s a factor, at least for the players. During basic training you are up at 4:15,” Falcons coach Troy Calhoun said.
Accommodating CBS television, the rooster-rising kickoff time is the earliest in the history of Falcon Stadium, which should be selling coffee and hot chocolate by the gallons for what’s expected to be a bitterly cold and snowy morning in the mountains.
With these two option offenses, though, the game could be over by lunchtime.
While the timing won’t mean anything to these two teams, the trophy means everything.
The Falcons (2-2) have won the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy the last two years after Navy (1-3) held the prize from 2003-09. Last year’s game ended in controversy and a 35-34 Air Force overtime win in Annapolis, Md.
The trophy goes to the military academy with the best record in round-robin competition between Air Force, Navy and Army.
“It’s in a glass case in the Clune Arena,” Falcons running back Cody Goetz said. “We want to keep it here.”
“You have to understand that there’s a trophy case in our locker room that’s been empty the past couple years,” Navy running back Bo Snelson said. “The only ones who have ever seen that trophy are the (Class of) 2013 guys. It hurts that we haven’t been able to bring it back.”
Either Air Force or Navy has taken the trophy in the last 15 years, shutting out Army since 1996. The only time Calhoun has lost a home nonconference game was in 2008, when Navy won 33-27 at Falcon Stadium.
“There is a little hatred between the two teams,” said Goetz, whose Falcons lead the nation with a nearly 400-yard rushing average. “We know in time we will be serving together, but at the same time, we really don’t like each other.
“You want to make sure everyone knows you are the best service academy. We could be playing poker and still want to beat them just as bad.”
In a game that featured nine touchdowns, a stunning comeback and a much-debated penalty, the duel between Air Force and Navy last year was decided by one of football’s most mundane plays: the extra point attempt.
Tim Jefferson ran for a 1-yard touchdown in overtime and Parker Herrington added the conversion to give Air Force a wild 35-34 victory. After the Falcons blew an 18-point lead in the fourth quarter, Navy’s Kriss Proctor ran for a 1-yard touchdown to begin the overtime. But he was penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct for getting up in a defender’s face, and Jon Teague’s long conversion attempt from 35 yards out was blocked by Alex Means.
That heartbreaker took its toll as the Midshipmen never really righted their ship.
“I think it was a turning point in our season,” Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo said. “That was a devastating game for us. We had a hard time bouncing back from that one. To lose the way we did made it even harder. It’s hard enough to lose to our rival, much less the way we did.”
It wasn’t just the ending that bothered Niumatalolo.
“Last year, I thought we were a little too amped up, too emotional,” Niumatalolo said. “I take blame for that. I think our whole offseason stuff was about getting the trophy back. Our guys were probably too tight at the beginning. We just have to relax and play. Football is an emotional game, but you still have to be able to control yourself.”
Navy senior linebacker Brye French said the Midshipmen were so determined to get the Commander-in-Chief’s trophy back they didn’t keep an even keel last year.
“I think maybe we built the game up too big. There might have been too much pressure,” French said. “Of course it’s a big game, everybody knows that, but last year we worried more about the outside factors instead of just worrying about the team. That’s something we’ve been working on this week.”
Last year’s loss still drives him.
“Seeing guys crying and upset in the locker room was rough,” French said. “Something clicked in my mind. I want to be part of getting this thing back. I want to provide some leadership for the guys so we can get the trophy back. Our freshman year, we had that ring. It’s been sitting in a drawer ever since.
“You look at the older guys before us, they have four (rings). It’s tough only having one. It’s even harder that some of the younger guys don’t know what that’s like, the success of Navy football in the past’’