Start Time: 3:30 PM ET
Location: Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium Annapolis, MD
TV: CBS Sports Network (John Sadak, Randy Cross, Sheehan Stanwick-Burch)
Radio: Navy: Navy Football Radio Network (Pete Medhurst, Omar Nelson, Joe Miller) WBAL 1090 AM Baltimore; WNAV 1430 AM 99.9 FM Annapolis Air Force: (Jim Arthur, Jesse Kurtz) KVOR AM 740 Colorado Springs; The Fan 104.3 FM Denver
Series Record: Air Force 28-Navy 19
Live Stats: Link
Even though the forecast for Hurricane Joaquin has shifted to the east, the weather will still play a factor tomorrow in Annapolis. The Navy football team has been practicing in the rain all week, preparing themselves for what appears to be a wet and windy day on the gridiron.
Navy (3-0) is coming off of their first ever road conference win after beating UConn 28-18 last weekend behind another strong offensive performance from quarterback Keenan Reynolds and a solid defensive second half that saw the Mids get stops on multiple possessions in a row to preserve their lead and come away with the W.
Air Force (2-1) enters the game off of a bye week following a 35-21 loss in East Lansing against then number four Michigan State. Even though they were unable to pull off the upset, their defense held Michigan State to 77 yards rushing and Karson Roberts filled in nicely for injured starter Nate Romine after some early game jitters.
While the battle for the Commander-in-Chief's trophy starts on Saturday in Annapolis, there is another element to this game that adds depth to the rivalry. With Navy as a member of the American Athletic Conference, this game could have implications down the road as this is one of only two games this year played between the Mountain West Conference and AAC. The other was a 41-20 Tulsa victory over New Mexico in week two. Conference bragging rights add another level of intrigue to an already intense rivalry, especially as Commissioner Aresco continues to prop up the AAC as the Power Six conference. The AAC is playing very well so far, and another non-conference victory against a Group of 5 opponent can only help their cause.
When Navy has the ball:
Keenan Reynolds and the rest of the Navy offense remembers what happened last year in Colorado Springs. They are out for redemption in this game, and are looking to continue a string of success that has seen them run their winning streak up to seven games dating back to last season.
The offense has looked almost unstoppable during the first halves of games this season. Aside from Navy's first drive of the season against Colgate that resulted in a fumble, the Navy offense has scored points on EVERY other drive of the first half in their first three games this year. That is incredible and tells me two things. The first is that Navy offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper has come into each game with a great game plan for attacking the opponent's defense. The second is that no team has been able to simulate the actual speed and efficiency of Navy's offense with their scout team. The offense has been in rhythm early and that has led to big leads at halftime in each game this season.
Air Force will provide a challenge on defense, however. They limited Michigan State to 77 yards rushing in East Lansing two weeks ago. This was due in part to selling out on the run and forcing Connor Cook to beat them through the air, which he was able to do, but there is no mistaking that this is a physical defense that knows how to get off cut blocks and will be well prepared to handle the triple-option of Navy.
Alex Hansen, David Harris, and Samuel Byers form a solid defensive line up front. Dexter Walker and Connor Healy have played well at the linebacker position, and Weston Steelhammer is the leader of the defense for a secondary that welcomes back Gavin McHenry this week after he completed six months of conduct probation and was reinstated by the team.
Reynolds and Co. will have their hands full on Saturday, but so far they have given every indication this season that they are clicking as a unit and up to the task.
Advantage: Slight to Navy
When Air Force has the ball:
The Navy defense continues to play well early on this season. Will Anthony and Amos Mason continue to get pressure in the backfield. Micah Thomas continues to rack up tackles alongside Daniel Gonzales. Kevin McCoy continues to have an impact as he has shot up the depth chart to be a co-starter at the Raider position and leads or is tied for the team lead in sacks, tackles for loss, forced fumbles, and fumble recoveries.
The secondary continues to step up when needed with Quincy Adams and Brendon Clements holding down the corner spots and Lorentez Barbour and Kwazel Bertrand playing well at the safety position.
Navy continues to limit explosive plays this season as they are ranked fifth in the country in explosiveness according to Bill Connelly's rankings over at Football Study Hall. The ability to play well as the field shrinks, step up in the red zone, and limit the plays for big gains has allowed Navy to limit opponents to 16.3 points per game, good for 22nd in the country in scoring defense.
Navy has also been able to get more pressure on the quarterback this season. We saw this early on with Colgate even though it didn't translate into any sacks, but last week at UConn saw the Navy defense rack up five sacks in one game compared to eight they had all of last season. They are getting pressure in the backfield which has helped them improve their third down conversion rate. They are eleventh in the country right now in sack rate on standard downs.
The Air Force offense is now being led by Karson Roberts. Navy fans may remember Roberts from the 2013 game against Air Force. Nate Romine started the season at quarterback, but a knee injury forced him to the sideline and Roberts got his first start of the season two weeks ago against Michigan State. There were clearly some early jitters for Roberts that led to a couple fumbles and some bad reads, but he settled in and seemed to get better as the game went along.
The Air Force rushing attack is led by Jacobi Owens and D.J. Johnson and currently sits second in the nation with a 367.0 yds/gm average. They have been able to move the ball effectively on the ground in all three games this season and will provide a tough matchup for the Navy linebacker corps on Saturday.
Jalen Robinette, a preseason Biletnikoff award watchlist wide receiver, poses a constant big-play threat on the outside when Air Force decides to dial up the pass.
An interesting side note, Navy has not given up a rushing TD this season and Air Force has not given up a sack this season. With Air Force's prolific rushing attack and Navy's added emphasis on getting to the quarterback, something has to give this weekend.
Advantage: Slight to Air Force
Alex Barta has officially won the starting punting job for Navy after two terrific punts against UConn last week.
Austin Grebe continues to be perfect as the Navy placekicker dating back to last season. Both Barta and Grebe are great special teams weapons for Navy, but Navy needs to clean up their punt and kick return game.
After fumbling a punt return and another kick return against UConn, it is only a matter of time before Navy is unable to recover one of the balls they put on the ground, and inevitably that will probably come at an inopportune time.
Air Force has one of the best punt return men in the country in Garrett Brown. He currently averages third in the country with 25.3 yards per return.
Navy appears to have the kicking edge while Air Force has the return edge.
With the weather predicted for tomorrow's game, this one could very well come down to who can hold onto the ball and win the turnover margin.
While the defenses stack up very similar and both teams are putting up comparable offensive numbers as well, I am taking Navy in this game for two reasons.
Navy has a four-year starter who has seen just about everything you can throw at him in Keenan Reynolds leading the offense.
The game is being played in Annapolis and Air Force is 1-5 in the triple-option era in Annapolis with the lone win coming 35-34 in overtime in 2011.
Navy 28-Air Force 24