America’s game will be played this Saturday at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey.
No, not the Cowboys versus the Giants — that assumption could be construed as an insult — but the iconic matchup between the Black Knights and the Midshipmen.
Navy and Army, or Annapolis and West Point, will meet for the 122nd time in this storied rivalry. Navy leads the series 61-53-7.
Navy’s had a challenging season — more on that shortly — and Army comes into the game confident with an 8-3 record and a game against Southeastern Conference opponent Missouri visible on the gridiron horizon.
But records or momentum don’t really mean much when these two programs clash. The window is wide open.
“It’s gonna be a slugfest,” said Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo during a recent media roundtable. “I’ve been in this game a lot — 24 times — you just throw out everything before the games. Don’t look at the records. Last year going into the game, we beat Tulane, and they lost to Tulane, but then we lost.”
It’s probably the most formidable matchup on either schedule. Navy (3-8) had the third toughest schedule in the nation this season, which included second-ranked Cincinnati, eighth-ranked Notre Dame and 24th-ranked SMU.
“Eleven of our opponents were bowl teams,” Niumatalolo said. “The number-one toughest schedule in the country. That’s crazy to me. The United States Naval Academy, we have the toughest schedule?”
Army (8-3) faced Wisconsin and Wake Forest and had an overtime win against Air Force (9-3), who will play Louisville in the First-Responder Bowl later this month.
But those contests won’t compare to this Saturday.
“We know each other very well,” said Army head coach Jeff Monken. “Their team knows ours, and we know them. We recruit the same guys. And we compete over the same things all the time, and it’ll be the toughest game we play all year. We know that.”
Navy slotback/receiver and future surface warfare officer Carlinos Acie said the Midshipmen leave it all out on the field against Army.
“It’s something you want to do every game — leaving it all out on the field — but when you’re playing against them, it just means a little bit more,” he said.
The rivalry began in 1890, mostly played in Philadelphia for its existence. But it hasn’t been contested every year. For instance, a disagreement about rules pertaining to player eligibility compelled both schools to opt out of the 1928-29 meetings. But it has been held annually since 1930.
Its best tradition — subjectively speaking — is the prisoner exchange. It began in 1945 and is now the Service Academy Exchange Program. Seven Army cadets and seven Navy Mids switch academies for a semester, then are ceremoniously returned at midfield before the start of the game.
But a more well-known tradition is on the line Saturday. The Commander-In-Chief’s Trophy. Navy could play spoiler with a victory, rendering the trophy dormant. Otherwise, it’s Army’s to lose. The Black Knights defeated Air Force earlier in the season, leaving Army in control of the trophy’s 2021 fate.
Tradition speaks loud. The pomp and circumstance and shenanigans — as Monken endearingly called it — occurring at West Point and in Annapolis this week adds to the rivalry’s intensity, but the heart of this duel is on the field.
Acie said the week is something different. Almost intangible.
“You just know it’s a big game coming up,” he said. “Obviously, we practice hard all season, but this Army week, it’s just like another feeling in the air. It’s like everybody has to take it to another level.”
Preparation for this year’s game is the same but different, according to Monken.
“The way we prepare is a regular week … really, we’re trying to stay healthy after 11 games and several weeks,” Monken said. “Our team’s beat up.”
But the former Georgia Southern head coach also said the focus is elevated.
“Our guys have been very professional about their approach each week, and that’s probably … accelerated this week that they’ve really got to focus on their job and what they can do to help us win.”
Monken said the Black Knights selection to the Armed Forces Bowl on Dec. 22 — versus Missouri — hasn’t distracted his players.
“Our guys could care less,” he said. “There’s one game in the whole world right now. And that’s the one this Saturday. And that’s all our guys really care about, and that’s all I really care about.”
Niumatalolo said preparation for this showdown is challenging, adding that recent history is irrelevant.
“It’s hard to prepare for that game — the magnitude of it. You can’t replicate it. You do the best you can in some of your preparation … The thing that I’ve learned in this game, anything prior to the game doesn’t mean anything,” Niumatalolo said. “Only thing that matters is on that game day … it’s who plays best that game.”
But at the end of the game, the close of the broadcast, it can easily be argued that it’s the greatest game on American soil.
“I think it’s a game that captures the entire country, just from the standpoint of … everybody knows somebody that served in the Army or the Navy or the Marine Corps … so it’s not a regional rivalry,” Niumatalolo said. “It’s a rivalry that touches all of America. That’s why many people say it’s America’s game.”