PHILADELPHIA | Before he even arrived in Annapolis, Tyree Barnes got a taste of heartbreak in the Army-Navy rivalry when his Naval Academy prep school team lost to Army’s counterpart - on the last play of the game.
“I realized that quick that I didn’t want to lose to them again,” the senior receiver said. “It was a big deal, and we heard from a lot of people, ‘Once you get [to Annapolis], you better beat Army.’ It’s pretty hard to go back home on Monday and hear ‘Beat Army’ when you have to wait a whole year. Nobody wants to lose to Army. It’s not just the football team; it’s the entire school.”
That’s a sentiment first-year Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo understands. He’s acutely aware that coaches are often measured by how their teams fare against rivals. And in the service academies’ case, the result of the long-standing rivalry goes a long way in determining how those within the programs judge the season.
So even though Navy (7-4) has clinched a winning record and secured a spot in the Dec. 20 EagleBank Bowl at RFK Stadium, Niumatalolo said those accomplishments will be immaterial unless the Mids come away with a win Saturday against the Black Knights (3-8) at Lincoln Financial Field.
“This is our No. 1 goal,” he said. “Everything that’s happened, we want to get our No. 1 goal.”
Even though this is his first season leading the Mids, Niumatalolo has been a part of 10 Army-Navy games as an assistant. He already has been exposed to the effects that added pressure can have on players.
“I’ve seen in this game that guys can’t even remember their own names,” Niumatalolo said. “They get so tight. I’m just trying to make sure that, from a mental standpoint, we’re prepared for Saturday.”
That has been the formula for Navy’s recent success in service academy play. It has won six straight games over Army, the longest streak in the 109-year-old series. And since the Mids beat Air Force in October, a win Saturday would give them their sixth straight Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy. President Bush plans to be in attendance.
The Mids’ overwhelming success has not made them complacent, however. If anything, it has brought added importance to the annual showdown because each senior class wants to live up to the one before it.
“Coach reminds us every day at the end of practice that this team has never lost to Army - and you don’t want to be the class to drop that ball,” Barnes said. “You don’t want to be the ones to come back and have to walk around for the rest of the year after losing to Army.”
The importance of Saturday’s game is part of the reason Niumatalolo has yet to name his starting quarterback. Senior Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada, who has been battling a hamstring injury all season, returned to practice last week. But sophomore Ricky Dobbs, who started the Mids’ 16-0 win against Northern Illinois on Nov. 25, has provided a spark.
“There’s a case for both of them,” Niumatalolo said. “Do we go with our guy with experience that’s been through two of these games already, that’s been in a ton of big games for us? Or do we go with the guy that’s been playing who’s had a little bit of a hot streak?
“So we’re going to continue to practice them both and see how the week unfolds and go from there.”