Dec. 12, 2013
PHILADELPHIA, Pa. – One of the most storied rivalries in all of sports takes center stage once again when the Army-Navy Game presented by USAA kicks off Saturday afternoon at Lincoln Financial Field. The 114th edition of the annual contest is set for a 3 p.m. kickoff and will be broadcast to a national audience by CBS.
Saturday’s game is the 84th in the series to be contested in the City of Brotherly Love and the ninth time Army (3-8) and Navy (7-4)have squared off at Lincoln Financial Field. The Mids have won all eight previous meetings at the home of the Philadelphia Eagles as part of their current 11-game winning series winning streak.
“As I’ve said, our team and Navy’s team are playing each other for the first time,” head coach Rich Ellerson said this week. “There are some guys from our team and from their team that were out there last year but this iteration of the 2013 Army-Navy football game is entirely unique and no points carry over.”
Two of the nation’s top rushing offenses will be on display Saturday afternoon. The Black Knights enter the game ranked second in the country, averaging 323.6 yards per contest, while the Midshipmen are right behind at 320.1 yards per game. The two programs have combined to win six of the last eight rushing titles, including Army’s No. 1 rankings in 2011 and 2012.
With such prolific running games, it’s no surprise that the teams rank No. 122 and No. 123 in passing. The Mids are averaging 98.9 yards per game through the air, while Army passes for 80.1 yards per contest.
Army’s attack is led by junior running back Terry Baggett. Baggett enters the Black Knights’ season finale with a career-high 1,072 yards, the 11th best total in Army history. The Chicago native is the fifth Army player in the last four seasons to reach the 1,000-yard mark. It is the first time in program history the Black Knights have had at least one 1,000-yard rusher in four consecutive seasons.
Junior Angel Santiago has started the first 11 games under center, but Saturday’s starter will be not be announced until game time. Sophomore A.J. Schurr, who has been hampered much of the season with an ankle injury, played the second half of Army’s game at Hawai’i on Nov. 30, rushing for four touchdowns and leading the Black Knights on five touchdown drives after halftime. Santiago is Army’s third-leading rusher with 553 yards and a team-high nine touchdowns. Schurr has been the more accurate passer, completing 58.3 percent of his throws for 196 yards and a touchdown.
The duo battled all spring and preseason for the starting job with Santiago earning the call in the season opener.
“This is back to the future, and its back to where we were at the beginning of the season,” Ellerson said. “The good news is that our first two quarterbacks are healthy and a lot of weeks during the year we couldn’t say that either of our first two quarterbacks were healthy. We’re paying attention. Angel has done a lot of good things this year and we haven’t forgotten about all of that. What you may consider a distraction is somewhat of a comfort zone for us.”
Freshman Xavier Moss will attempt to add to his Army plebe record 30 receptions. His total is more than the Black Knights’ next four leading receivers combined. Moss also leads the team with 413 yards and is one of four players to catch one touchdown this season.
The Navy defense is led by co-captain Cody Peterson who has racked up 124 tackles from his inside linebacker position. Fellow inside linebacker DJ Sargenti is next on the list with 96 tackles and has six tackles for loss. Both Chris Johnson and Parrish Gaines have intercepted a team-high three passes.
“We’ve faced this defense over the years,” Ellerson said. “They’ll adjust to the iterations that we come up with. We’re paying attention to the nuances, but they don’t get very far away from their base defense when they play us. That’s very typical of teams that play defense well against our offense. They don’t get too creative in their preparation for the offense. They find the answers within their own systems. Their defense shares the same practice environment with an offense that is fundamentally very similar to ours. They’ll have a well-informed approach. Sometimes folks will look at what we’re doing and it’s just different enough to their background that they’ll assume some things about us that aren’t necessarily accurate. That won’t be true on Saturday.”
The Mids’ offense is led by sophomore quarterback Keenan Reynolds. Reynolds has posted 1,124 rushing yards and 26 touchdowns, just two shy of breaking the NCAA single-season mark for rushing scores by a quarterback. He has also completed 63 of his 114 passes (.553) for 1,028 yards and eight touchdowns.
“(We have to) control their quarterback because he can make plays with his legs, he can make plays with his arms and he can make plays with what’s between his ears,” Ellerson said. “He is a very competent, cool and calm operator. He sees the game very well and keeps them out of bad situations. He takes care of the football team very well. He is not out there just making plays. He is running their offense and distributing the ball. Clearly getting him to have a bad game would be a huge thing for us. When you do that you are not just talking about how he throws and how he runs but you are talking about the decisions he makes, which is hard to do because he sees the game very well.”
Casey Bolena and DeBrandon Sanders have been Reynolds’s favorite targets in the passing game, catching 13 and 11 passes respectively. Matt Aiken has hauled in two touchdown passes.
The Army defense, which has limited Navy to 162.5 rushing yards per game in the last two years, will be bolstered by the return of leading tackler Thomas Holloway. Holloway, a senior rover linebacker, missed the Hawai’i game with an elbow injury. A second-team Academic All-America selection, he has made 59 tackles, including 2.5 for loss and intercepted one pass. Junior Geoffery Bacon is next on the list with 55 stops, while senior Colby Miller has racked up 52 tackles despite starting just the last four games.
Saturday’s game is the Black Knights’ season finale, while the Mids will go on to play Middle Tennessee State in the Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl on Dec. 30.
“There are so many back stories that surround this game, and some of them are great and deserving, but I’m trying to coach a football game, and I’m going to try to win on Saturday,” Ellerson told the press on Monday. “We’re going to play because this is the last time the team of 2013 gets to play. We’re so committed to one another and have practiced so hard that that’s all we need. That’s what gets our blood boiling. But when you get the media guys aside, they’re not rooting for Navy and they’re not rooting for Army, they’re rooting for the story. They’re rooting for the most compelling story, the story that catches the imagination of the public. Some of those stories are great stories that should be told, but they’re not our story. That’s why we are closing the practice and trying to circle the wagons around why we play and who we are. This is a special moment. We’re going to make sure that we don’t lose that and don’t get distracted from that.”