Jeff Monken's first year at Army probably hasn't gone the way he envisioned as the Black Knights try to right a season teetering on the brink.
At least there are two chances left on the schedule to really shine: service-academy games against Air Force and archrival Navy. Beat them and the brass is happy — and the team gets to take possession of the coveted hardware, the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy.
The trophy goes annually to the winning academy with the best record in round-robin competition. Air Force (5-2) could win a record 19th trophy with a victory at Army (2-5) on Saturday. The Black Knights haven't won it since 1996.
"We're fortunate to be in that position where, regardless of what happens in other football games, we're playing for a championship when we play Air Force and Navy," Monken said before his first service-academy game as a head coach. "These are the biggest games on our schedule. Everybody has big games on their schedule, everybody has rivalry games, and we have two of them.
"Not that any one victory is more important than another, but I can tell you that winning your rivalry games is important — and it is a big deal."
If the Black Knights needed any impetus for Saturday at Michie Stadium — not likely — at least a little fuel has been added to the proverbial fire. The Gazette of Colorado Springs, a stone's throw from the Air Force Academy, published a story last weekend about an Army recruiting excursion in January that featured underage drinking and led to minor NCAA infractions and the disciplining of 20 cadets, two officers and two coaches.
"Think it's coincidental it happened this week?" Monken asked. "I don't worry about it. It was a distraction in January. It's over and done with."
Both teams are coming off bye weeks. Air Force has won four of five, including triumphs over Boise State, New Mexico, and Navy, which put the Falcons in position to capture the trophy on Saturday.
"They score a lot of points and are able to move the ball against some very good opponents, and they take care of the ball," Monken said. "That's the thing in an option offense where the ball is changing hands a lot that is sometimes a challenge, and they do that really well."
Some other things to know when Air Force meets Army:
RUN AND RUN SOME MORE: The Black Knights with their potent triple option ground attack rank fourth in the nation in yards rushing at 319.4 per game. Navy, which lost to Air Force 30-21, leads at 352.3, and New Mexico is fifth at 304.4. Air Force is 11th with a 273.4-yard average.
"Best running team we've played so far this season, and I think we've played some of the best running teams in the country so far," Air Force coach Troy Calhoun said of the Black Knights. "It's probably the best running team they've had, and they've had some good ones."
FALCONS RULE: Air Force and Army are meeting for the 49th time, and the Falcons lead the series 33-14-1. Air Force has won 15 of the last 17 in the series and is 30-12 in Commander-in-Chief's Trophy games vs. Army dating back to the beginning of the round-robin competition in 1972. The Falcons also have a series-best 55-30 overall record against Army and Navy.
HOME SWEET HOME: The teams have split the last two meetings, with the home team winning on its own turf. Two years ago, Army won 41-21 at Michie Stadium and last season Air Force topped the Black Knights 42-28 at Falcon Stadium.
STARS: Air Force is led by senior quarterback Kale Pearson, who has almost 1,000 yards passing this season. Army is paced by fullback Larry Dixon, who leads the team with 683 yards rushing and ranks fifth in Army history in rushing with 2,769 yards.
PSYCHED UP: Rivalry games among the three service academies take on extra meaning, and the players fight to keep their emotions in check. But can they get too psyched up?
"You get too psyched for a game? I'd like to see that guy," Monken said. "I want him on my team."
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