The pupil is facing the teacher. But now the tables are turned. Or something like that.
First-year Army coach Rich Ellerson and Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo go way back. As an assistant for the University of Hawaii, Ellerson recruited Niumatalolo to play for the Warriors. Niumatalolo was a lightly recruited local prospect, and his family served Ellerson a healthy portion of Samoan food to woo Ellerson.
The strategy worked. Ellerson cleaned his plate, and Niumatalolo ended up playing four years at Hawaii and then becoming a graduate assistant coach. Later he earned a full-time assistant job at Hawaii, taking Ellerson’s spot after he left to become an assistant at Arizona.
After years of tutelage under Ellerson and former Navy and current Georgia Tech head coach Paul Johnson, Niumatalolo is now one of the premier triple option coaches in the nation. Since he took over for Johnson at the end of the 2007 season, Niumatalolo has won 16 games and kept the Navy program humming along. He’ll be coaching in his third consecutive bowl game this year and will surely soon get serious consideration for job openings at BCS schools.
Conversely, Ellerson is in his first year as a Division I head coach. He’s installed the triple option offense at Army, and led the Black Knights to their best season in years, but his squad will be big-time underdogs Saturday (Vegas has Navy as 14-point favorites as of this point). So the question is: Can Ellerson use his triple option wisdom to overcome the odds and take down his former student? Or will Niumatalolo be the one giving the lessons on Saturday?
Army can clinch a bowl berth with a win.
This is huge. Navy and Air Force get to bowls on a fairly regular basis these days, but Army has had a long drought. The Black Knights go into the game at 5-6, one win away from clinching their first bowl berth since 1996. Prior to that, Army hadn’t been to a bowl game since 1988. So the Black Knights have much more than academy pride on the line Saturday.
Army is already selling tickets to the Eagle Bank Bowl, something that I’m sure makes sense to the folks in the Army athletic department. But this is classic bulletin board material for Navy. Nobody needs any extra incentive to be fired up for this game, but why oh why would you give Navy’s players one more reason to despise Army?
If Army is to win, it will have to play better than it has in its past two games. The Black Knights needed second half comebacks to beat North Texas and VMI, a Division I-AA school. Army showed great character by coming from behind, but it goes without saying — Navy will be a much, much tougher foe than either of those teams. Which brings me to my next storyline …
Will Navy’s dominance of the rivalry continue?
Let’s face it: This game ain’t what it used to be, because Navy has owned Army since Paul Johnson was hired as the Mids’ head coach in 2002. Army-Navy was traditionally the epitome of the “throw out the records” game, but lately that hasn’t been the case.
The often bowl-bound Navy squads have pounded a succession of sub-.5oo Black Knight teams during the Johnson/Niumatalolo era, winning an unprecedented seven straight games in the series. The closest margin of victory for Navy in the past seven games has been 12 points (2006). Three of Navy’s wins have been by more than 30 points. Last year Army didn’t even score. Although most Navy fans may disagree, the rivalry is at a low point.
In a departure from tradition, Army-Navy is being played a week later than usual, and it will be the only Division I game played Saturday. This means the game will have the college football spotlight all to itself. So if Navy jumps all over Army and turns this one into another rout, everyone is going to see it. And change the channel.
The Black Knights need to step up, but once again, they’ve got their work cut out for them. Navy is 8-4, with two of the losses coming to ranked BCS teams in Ohio State and Pittsburgh, and the other two losses coming to bowl-bound Temple and Hawaii. Meanwhile, the Mids beat Notre Dame in South Bend for the second time in three years, and have a quarterback in Ricky Dobbs who set the NCAA record for rushing TDs by a QB this year. He’s being advertised a Heisman Trophy candidate for next season, and he will be a handful for Army on Saturday.