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Navy seeks to reassert dominance in Air Force rivalry

- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 4, 2012

ANNAPOLIS — Bo Snelson was walking through the eighth wing in Bancroft Hall over the summer, a place where the Naval Academy's seniors have lockers for storage.

Something else was there.

Something familiar.

Something that immediately caught Snelson's eye.

It was the case used to display the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy in the building's rotunda. It also was empty after the Midshipmen's back-to-back losses to Air Force.

"It was just in there collecting dust," Snelson said. "I was like 'Man, we can use that.'"

So Snelson and senior wide receiver John O'Boyle found a new home for the out-of-use display: They placed it near the entrance to the team's locker room, in front of a pillar and impossible to ignore.

Navy's failure the past two years — and the opportunity it receives Saturday when it visits Air Force (2-2) — would never be far from mind.

"After a while, you keep looking at it because it's in your way," senior wide receiver Brandon Turner said. "It really starts to make you think, 'Man, I haven't beaten these guys since I was a freshman.' You can't believe it."

Nonetheless, it's a reality the Mids (1-3) faced over the past two years. Navy won seven straight games against the Falcons from 2003 to 2009 before yielding its service academy supremacy with a 14-6 loss two seasons ago. Air Force won 35-34 in overtime last year after quarterback Kriss Proctor's unsportsmanlike conduct penalty led to a 35-yard extra point attempt the Falcons blocked.

That loss ignited an 0-5 October that ultimately cost Navy both its chance at winning back a coveted trophy but also provided some of the worst moments in the program's first losing season since 2002.

Things haven't gone much better this season. The Mids are coming off their first shutout loss since 2006, and their 144-yard effort against San Jose State was their lowest since 2002.

"I thought last year that loss was so devastating it took us in a tailspin," coach Ken Niumatalolo said. "We're kind of in a tailspin right now. I'm hoping we play well. Who knows? If things go well and we're fortunate enough to get a W, hopefully it can take us the other way."

While Niumatalolo and some players stressed the importance simply playing the game between the lines, it just isn't a typical game for the Mids. After all, the back-to-back losses to Air Force prompted Snelson's bit of redecorating.

If a player goes to the weight room, he sees the trophy case. When he steps into the locker room, he sees it. When he walks outside to practice, he sees it.

"It's definitely tough looking at it and seeing it empty," linebacker Brye French said. "Being freshmen and seeing the success we had back then and how we've dropped the ball the past couple years, it's tough to look at. Give them credit. They're a great team. They beat us handily the past few games."

As unpleasant a reminder as it is, it also created a mild inconvenience. The case's presence led to space issues for moving equipment around the locker room — enough for Navy's equipment manager to ask Snelson if there was another place for the empty display.

"I said, 'Heck yes, that's right where I want it,'" Snelson said. "I want it in the way. I want people to have to maneuver around it to look at it every day because that's such a big symbol of what this program was built on and what this program strives for."

It also carries the benefit of a trip to the White House during the offseason. Snelson and his fellow seniors are the only players left in the program to experience that.

Only the juniors and seniors have seen the trophy displayed at the academy.

And the initial reaction from some members of the freshman and sophomore classes when the case was yanked out of mothballs?

"We had kids asking, 'What's that?'" Snelson said. "That's why I wanted to put that in here. Nobody's seen that three-football trophy in there. That's something we really we want to bring back."

There's just one way for it to happen, as the Mids are well aware: topple Air Force to begin the process of saving what is to date a shaky season.

"The Commander-in-Chief's Trophy is our No. 1 goal," Niumatalolo said. "It's no secret they have it. We want it, but we have to go through them to get it. They've been playing well and we have to play better if we want to have a chance to get it back."

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