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AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. – From high-ranking officers to first-year cadets, Army players have received all sorts of random pep talks over the week.
This isn't your ordinary game. This one is for service academy supremacy and everyone is fired up.
The Black Knights (3-5) kick off their quest for the Commander in Chief's Trophy when they travel to Air Force (1-7) on Saturday. A win by Army sets up quite a showdown with Navy in the final game of the season as the Black Knights try to capture their first trophy since 1996 in the annual round-robin competition.
A loss and, well, the Midshipmen would retain the crown no matter what, courtesy of being the defending champions and having already beaten the Falcons earlier this season. (A three-way tie keeps the trophy with the past winner).
All week, Army coach Rich Ellerson attempted to minimize the distractions and keep his team's focus only on Air Force's option attack. That's been a challenge, though, given the importance of the game to these two academies.
"This is one of those weeks that everyone is vested and has something to say," Ellerson said. "I think it's all well-meaning, but there are a lot of people who want to talk to you about Air Force and playing at Air Force. It's all about the importance of the moment and taking advantage of the opportunities.
"When you get into big games, it doesn't matter where you are, you tend to get a little bit of (talk) and we just tell our guys not to focus on that."
Here are five things to consider as Army embarks on its first leg toward the Commander in Chief's Trophy and Air Force steps into the role of spoiler:
RUN, RUN, RUN: Don't expect all that many passes as both teams rely heavily on the ground game. Army enters with a nation-leading 340 yards rushing per game. The Falcons have struggled to move the ball at times this season, but still averages 271 yards, which is 12th in the country. "They are going to have another epiphany along the way and do something that they think we are particularly vulnerable to via personnel or system-wise," Ellerson said. "That is the challenge there, having to prepare what you bring to the park and what you haven't prepared for."
MANAGING EMOTIONS: Army hasn't won two in a row in this series since the 1970s. The Black Knights have a chance to do just that after beating Air Force 41-21 last season. Ellerson realizes just how much this game means to those involved with both academies. "These are iconic with respect to the programs, and it is part of our culture," Ellerson said. "It permeates us at every level. The recent graduates, old graduates, current players and people who are attending the service academies, the games bring the national attention on these young people and the path that they have chosen. I think it is a lot of fun being part of something like that."
FORTUNATE BREAK: The week off couldn't have arrived at a better time for the banged-up Black Knights. They had some key players dealing with injuries, including quarterback Angel Santiago (ankle). "There were times I would prefer to keep playing, but this was not one of those weeks," Ellerson said of the break. "At this moment, it was imperative, where we were health-wise." Running back Raymond Maples will travel with the team, but is listed as questionable for the game.
REGROUPING: The Falcons are out of the bowl picture after dropping their seventh straight game last week against Notre Dame. With it goes a streak of six straight bowl appearances under coach Troy Calhoun. However, he won't need any extra incentive to get his players revved up this week, with Army coming to town. "This is an important game. Anytime you play another service academy it's important for people not only on the campus, but outside of the campus," Calhoun said.
QB QUANDARY: The Falcons started freshman Nate Romine at quarterback last weekend, becoming the only team in the nation with four different starters at QB this season. Romine also became the first freshman to start at signal caller for Air Force since Tim Jefferson in 2008. Romine had 76 yards rushing and completed 6 of 10 passes for 37 yards against the Fighting Irish. Calhoun hasn't said if Romine or sophomore Karson Roberts will receive the majority of the snaps against Army.