It’s hard to believe that anything new can happen in the 124th edition of the Army-Navy Game, but a significant first will occur the moment Saturday’s opening kickoff sails into the air.
For the first time, the game (3 p.m. kickoff, CBS TV network) will be played in New England – Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Mass. – and fans might be expecting a classic, close-fought, ground battle. But that might not happen.
With Air Force topping Navy 17-6 in October and Army upsetting Air Force 23-3 last month, Army (5-6) is in position to win the Commander-In-Chief’s Trophy outright for the first time since 2020 if the Black Knights can top the Midshipmen. If Navy (5-6) wins, the round-robin competition will end in a tie and the 170-pound, 2.5-foot-tall, silver and black prize will be retained by Air Force, which won the trophy last year.
The 2023 football season saw some significant changes for both squads. Army, which had been the most run-centric team in the nation, added a shotgun-set passing attack about 15 percent of the time – far less than most opponents, but still a significant increase for the cadets. The new style of play produced inconsistent results, as Army stumbled to a 2-6 record entering the Air Force game. Brilliant Army defense forced six Air Force turnovers and held then- 8-0 Falcons to 155 yards on the ground and just 259 total yards. But the offense still struggled. Through 10 games, Army was averaging 192.8 yards per game on the ground and 112 through the air.
Everything changed in Army’s most recent game against Coastal Carolina. The shotgun was abandoned, quarterbacks Bryson Dailey and Champ Harris returned to starting behind center Brady Small, and the “triple option” was resurrected from the Army bag of tricks. This was old-school Army football – 348 rushing yards, zero passing yards and a strangling 39:51 minutes of ball possession that forced the visitors to rely on trying low-percentage big plays.
“We felt like we needed to run the football, and so we've been kind of working on some of the under-center stuff and having it ready and having it prepared and felt like this was going to be the best approach to start the game,” said Army Head Coach Jeff Monken after the win. “I don't know that I anticipated we were going to stay in it the entire game, but we were moving the football and controlling the clock and scoring, and so we stuck with it.”
Navy also adjusted to a new style of play this year, as first-year Head Coach Brian Newberry brought some changes to a team that had failed to win more than four games in any year since 2019. The Midshipmen have won two of their last three outings and are gaining confidence with each contest. The chance to deny Army the CIC Trophy is extra motivation.
“I think our players’ mindsets are so important, that their psyche is in the right place,” Newberry said. “You don’t want your kids to get uptight or to press. You want to be laser focused and dialed in. My job as head coach is to make sure we’re in the right state of mind. There’s a lot of similarities between our two teams – just look at their defense and look at ours. They play extremely hard. They’re extremely physical. They fly around. They know what they’re doing, They’re well coached. They play fast. I have lot of respect for how they play the game.”
Army’s strengths start with a defense led by senior linebacker Leo Lowin, who has 83 tackles and is third in the nation with four forced fumbles; linebacker Jimmy Ciarlo (51 tackles) and safety Quindrelin Hammonds (58 tackles).
Offensively, Dailey leads Army in rushing with 817 yards and seven touchdowns on 188 carries. He has also completed 53 of 106 pass attempts for 859 yards with six touchdowns and 6 interceptions.
The Navy offense is led by senior quarterback Xavier Arline (23-42 for 320 yards and two scores), with another senior, Tai Lavatai (40-75 for 522 yards and five TDs), questionable after missing the last 4 games with an injury. The Midshipman are led on the ground by sophomore fullback Alex Tacza (724 yards).
The Navy defense features seven players with at least 40 tackles, led by Colin Ramos (94 Tackles) linebacker Will Harbour (76) and junior free safety Rayuan Lane III (62).