Navy senior class has a shot at history

For Navy players, the objective is simple: Keep the winning streak alive.

For Army players, the objective is simple: Do everything it takes to break the losing streak.

Nine years have passed since Army beat Navy, a source of stigma for the Black Knights, a source of pride for the Midshipmen. With both academies headed to bowl games in the same year for the first time since 1996, we could see a more competitive game than we have in several years when they square off Saturday in Philadelphia.

But does that mean Army is going to break the eight-game skid, the longest for either team in the series?

“This has been the best season we’ve had in quite some time, so with that, I just believe this is our best shot at beating Navy,” Army defensive end Josh McNary said. “No one is lacking in confidence. There’s nothing more that we want to do than beat Navy.

“All the accolades I’ve had are negligible if we haven’t beaten Navy. If 10 years down the road when the question comes up, and I’m not able to say I beat Navy, I can’t be as proud as I’d like to be.”

Army is playing catch up to what has been an impressive decade of football for Navy, which had won seven straight Commander-In-Chief Trophies until Air Force claimed it this season. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Navy has 69 wins since 2003, more than traditional powers Nebraska (66), Penn State (65), Miami (64), Michigan (61) and Notre Dame (53). By contrast, Army has won 26 games in the same time span.

What has made Navy incredibly special is its incredibly special senior class. If Navy beats Army and San Diego State in the S.D. County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl, the Midshipmen will have back-to-back 10-win seasons for the first time in school history.

That would also give the seniors 36 wins, which would tie the class of 1909 for the most wins by a class at the Naval Academy.

“We all play for each other,” Navy defensive back Wyatt Middleton said about 2010 senior class. “I can honestly say the guys on the football team are my best friends and I’m pretty sure it goes the same way for them. We’ve all been friends since first day, and when it comes down to football, the important part is communication. It’s a lot easier to talk to a friend than a stranger.”

There are plenty of stud players in this class of 24 seniors. Middleton has started 46 straight games and has made 198 solo tackles in his career, tied for the 11th most in the NCAA among active players. He and quarterback Ricky Dobbs have earned their team captaincies. Dobbs set the NCAA record for rushing touchdowns by a quarterback last season with 27, and has 48 in his career, ranking No. 5 in NCAA history.

He needs just two rushing touchdowns to pass Kareem Wilson of Ohio University for fourth. Then there’s center Jeff Battipaglia, who has started 38 straight; and cornerback Kevin Edwards, who has started 25 straight. Safety Emmett Merchant and offensive tackle Mike Molloy made big contributions as well before concussions cut their careers short.

“There are some things from a football standpoint that will be unparalleled, but I’m more gratified for the things they’ve done off the field,” Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo said. “There’s so much more to being a Navy football player than what happens on the field. They’ve done everything we’ve asked of them. When you recruit guys, you hope things will turn out a certain way for them. To have a chance to finish on top in everything we’ve asked them to do is gratifying.”

There is another pretty impressive streak Navy has going over Army as well. The current Navy senior class has not allowed a touchdown to Army in its three previous meetings. The Midshipmen have outscored the Black Knights, 89-6 over the last three years. No Army or Navy team has ever kept the other out of the end zone in four straight years.

Whether that happens or not is immaterial, as long as Navy keeps that win streak alive.

“Since the first day we got to the Academy, they’ve instilled in us beat Army,” Middleton said. “This isn’t only football. From an academic and military standpoint it’s always been beat Army, beat Army, beat Army. It’s all we know. Not to do that would be a huge letdown.”