Army’s Ellerson breathes life into rivalry

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PHILADELPHIA | The Army-Navy game by definition is a must-see event on the college football calendar. Its organizers made sure of that this season, pushing it back to the second Saturday of December so it again is the lone game played that day.

But the matchup has been so lopsided recently - Navy has won a record seven straight in the series by a combined score of 274-71 - that the game’s intrigue recently has climaxed with whether the pregame parachuters can successfully land on the logo at midfield.

But that was before the arrival of Rich Ellerson at West Point. Thanks to his efforts, this year’s meeting has received an injection of on-field drama.

“We’re doing what everybody really wants to be doing,” the first-year coach said. “We’re playing a game late in the season that has bowl implications. That’s what we hoped for. This is obviously the greatest venue in college football, and we get to explore that opportunity in this venue. I couldn’t be more excited.”

Indeed, the Black Knights (5-6) will be playing for more than pride Dec. 12 at Lincoln Financial Field in the 110th meeting between the rivals. A victory against the Midshipmen (8-4) would secure a trip to the EagleBank Bowl at RFK Stadium, the Black Knights’ first bowl berth since 1996.

But to do so, the Black Knights will have to overcome the demons of their own futility. They haven’t won a Commander-In-Chief’s Trophy game since beating Air Force in 2005.

“They’re going to be highly motivated,” Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo said. “We better be ready, or this will be a long day. As bad as we felt losing to Hawaii [on Saturday], if it happened here, it would be 1,000 times worse.”

After years of frustration with a pro-style offense, Army turned to triple-option aficionado Ellerson, who was the defensive coordinator at Hawaii the same time former Mids coach Paul Johnson was offensive coordinator there.

Ellerson was tasked with restoring a once-great program that has struggled for the past decade-plus, and he made some waves in the process. After a short evaluation period in the spring, Ellerson made more than a dozen position changes, most notably and controversially switching 6-foot-10 Alejandro Villanueva from left tackle to receiver.

But the reorganization has worked. Life has been restored to the Army program, which can post its highest victory total since it won 10 games in 1996.

“It’s easier to go to practice when you’re playing Navy and you have a bowl game at stake than it is, say, the second week of the season,” Villanueva said. “You see a lot of players staying after practice, you see a lot of players watching extra film late at night, so that’s good to see as a team captain.”

While aware of Army’s improvement, the Mids still are confident - and for good reason. They have won 14 straight games against Army and Air Force.

Niumatalolo has plenty of ammunition to keep his team focused. The Mids are disappointed in their poor performance in their 24-17 loss at Hawaii, during which there were missed reads and blocks aplenty.

On top of that, Navy will be going for a record seventh straight Commander-In-Chief’s Trophy, already having knocked off Air Force earlier this season.

“There’s going to be some intense practices,” offensive captain Osei Asante said.

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