Every time Army football players enter the team’s meeting room they pass a picture commemorating last year’s win against Navy, a not-so-subtle reminder of the Cadets’ one-game winning streak in the series. Maybe it’s not the longest winning streak in the history of college football’s national rivalry. But after more than a decade of losing to the Midshipmen — more than once in heartbreaking fashion — Army won’t argue about the semantics.
“It’s a great memory for our program,” Army head coach Jeff Monken said. “It’s different maybe from any other game. There is such a great sense of pride in winning this game.“
It’s easy to point to that win, the team’s first against Navy since 2001, as the turning point for a program quickly gaining steam. After reaching a bowl game last fall, Army enters Saturday’s matchup with Navy already having matched last year’s eight-win total. Not since 1990 had the Cadets notched back-to-back winning seasons, and not since 1984-85 had they won as many games in a two-year span.
But the reality is that last year’s win was long coming — Army was knocking on Navy’s door in both 2015 and 2014, losing both games by a single possession. The narrow setbacks hurt, as rivalry losses tend to do, but they came with a message: Army was closing the gap.
“Every one of these games that I’ve been a part of us has been special,” Monken said. “It’s two teams that will battle it out as hard as they can on every snap for 60 minutes. It’s truly a privilege for all of us in this game to represent the people that we do. I think that’s the thing that makes this rivalry the best, not the game itself but all those it represents.”
It may have seemed impossible just three seasons ago, or at best improbable — such was Navy’s seemingly insurmountable edge in the rivalry. But ending its long losing streak was just the first step for Army, which under Monken’s direction has turned from national has-been to annual bowl participant. And the Cadets might be only getting started.
A victory against Navy would give the Cadets four wins against bowl-eligible competition, with one, against Duke in November, coming against a member of the Power Five. A win would hand the Cadets undisputed claim to the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy, an award signifying the winner of the academies’ triangular series, for the first time since 1996.
“You can’t get too complacent,” senior running back John Trainor said. “It’s about getting better, because you can always get better at what you’re doing. There’s always room for improvement.”
It might have taken a coach with Monken’s background to reverse Army’s nearly 20-year run among the weakest programs in the Football Bowl Subdivision, which saw the Cadets cycle through five different head coaches and nearly as many failed offensive schemes. While Army struggled, Monken was learning the option offense from the source: Beginning at Georgia Southern in 1997, he spent more than a decade as an assistant under current Georgia Tech head coach Paul Johnson — including six seasons as the running backs coach at Navy.
It took the right coach with the right offense at the right time, and more than a little bit of patience. The Cadets won just six games in Monken’s first two seasons, due in no small part to an inconsistent running game, but the offense has since turned the corner: Army ranked second nationally in rushing yards per game last season and enters Saturday leading the entire FBS, one spot above Navy, and ranks fourth in yards per carry.
“We believe in our team on both sides of the ball,” junior running back Darnell Woolfolk said. “We believe in our coaches. We definitely trust the process. We’ve got guys out here grinding every day, just working to achieve greater things every year.”
In the standings, at least, the arrow is pointing up. Having already booked a spot in the Armed Forces Bowl, a matchup with San Diego State, the Cadets need to win one of their final two games to exceed last year’s win total. The results are uniformly positive: Army is winning games at a clip unmatched in years.
But the next step is the hardest. Much like Navy before them, the Cadets successfully have reversed an extended stretch of mediocrity, if not worse. The Midshipmen then took the next step, earning a national ranking in 2004, notching a perception-changing win against Notre Dame in 2007 and not missing a beat when Johnson was replaced by Ken Niumatalolo a year later — Navy has won at least eight games in eight of the past nine seasons.
“Our main goal is just to win every single game,” Trainor said. “Not look forward to any other game, just focus on the next week, next day, next practice, and at the end of the day just look up at the scoreboard and hopefully end up on the winning side.”
Army enters Saturday knocking on the door of that next step. Having already moved into the small class of Group of Five programs capable of annual bowl appearances, the next rung on the ladder is double-digit wins and borderline top-25 contention — a strong possibility with wins against the Midshipmen and San Diego State to end the season.
“We all trust each other,” Trainor said. “That’s a huge thing, as a football team, to have trust in one another and trusting that we’ll get the job done. I think it’s helped us become the team we want to be.”
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