AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. — Over the summer, Air Force built a trophy case in the locker room to house one thing and one thing only — the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy.
Right now, the space sits empty.
“Walk by it every day,” Falcons junior linebacker Connor Healy said. “It’s motivation.”
The Falcons (3-1) kick off the first leg of the annual round-robin competition between service academies against Navy (2-3) on Saturday at Falcon Stadium. The Midshipmen have captured the trophy the last two seasons.
Just how pivotal is this matchup?
Consider this: The winner of the contest has gone on to capture the last 17 trophies. Air Force plays Army on Nov. 1 and Navy faces the Black Knights on Dec. 13. If the three teams finish tied, the trophy stays with the previous winner, which would be Navy.
“Winning the Commander-in-Chief Trophy is one of the greatest feelings in the world,” said Air Force senior defensive end Nick Fitzgerald, whose squad hasn’t secured the trophy since 2011 but leads the all-time series 27-19. “As freshmen, we thought it happened (every) time. Now we realize it takes a lot of work.”
Air Force is entering the game with loads of confidence after beating Boise State. But the Falcons have quickly set that aside.
“It felt good,” senior safety Christian Spears said. “But we are into Navy now. We are all about Navy.”
Same goes for the Midshipmen, who’ve lost to Rutgers and Western Kentucky the past two weeks. This is a chance to get their season back on course.
“It’s a service academy game, so we know Air Force is going to be hungry, just like we are,” Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo said on the school’s website. “It’s the biggest game of the year right now for us. We have to make sure we are prepared.”
Here are some things to know as Air Force and Navy begin the 43rd year of the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy competition:
RUN, RUN, RUN: As is usually the case, this game will feature two of the country’s best rushing teams. Navy leads the nation by averaging 358.4 yards a game, while Air Force is fifth at 323 yards.
OFF TARGET: Although Navy QB Keenan Reynolds doesn’t throw all that often — and when he does he usually goes deep — he’s still been missing his targets. He’s completed 43.8 percent of his passes (21 of 48). Last season, he completed around 53 percent. “I’ve just got to execute better,” Reynolds said. “That’s the best way I can sum it up.” He’s rushed for 361 yards and seven TDs.
BRONCO BUSTERS: With their win over Boise State, the Falcons snapped a 10-game conference losing skid. They also gave the Broncos their first loss to a Mountain Division opponent since joining the conference. What’s more, the win boosted Air Force’s morale. “Brought us together as a team,” said quarterback Kale Pearson, who rushed for a career-high 127 yards.
PROTECTING THE BALL: Air Force has created eight turnovers so far this season. The team had nine all last season. Safety Weston Steelhammer led the way last week by tying a school record with three interceptions. Navy has turned the ball over eight times this season.
HOSTILE TERRITORY: In their last visit to Falcon Stadium two years ago, the Midshipmen scored on a recovered fumble in the end zone and then held Air Force’s offense in check for a 28-21 overtime win. Air Force players certainly haven’t forgotten. “We have to explain to the freshman how important it is,” Fitzgerald said of the rivalry. “The other games? They’re just another win. Playing Wyoming and even Boise? It’s just another game. This is Navy. A service academy game — it bonds us all.”