Falcons take on Midshipmen as the quest for the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy begins in Annapolis
The first leg of the battle for the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy is set to kick off Saturday between the Air Force Falcons and the Navy Midshipmen. Air Force comes in with a 3-1 record following its 41-24 win over San Jose State in Week 5. Navy, which lost 35-23 to Memphis a week ago, is 2-1. Though neither academy needs additional motivation, it's worth noting that the winner will have the best chance to end archrival Army's two-year reign over the service academies.
Air Force at Navy
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 5, at 3:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Air Force -3.5
When Air Force Has the Ball
Air Force has been potent offensively this season thanks to its multi-faceted option offense. Running backs Kadin Remsberg and Taven Birdow have split carries almost evenly, and the pair has also gained nearly identical yardage on the ground. Remsberg's 342 rushing yards lead the Falcons, while Birdow is close behind with 338. The two have combined for five rushing touchdowns.
Quarterback Donald Hammond III, who leads the team with five rushing TDs, is one of four other Falcons with at least 100 yards on the ground to his name. However, Hammond has dealt with an ankle injury that forced Isaiah Sanders into the starting role against San Jose State. As (bad) luck would have it, however, Sanders suffered an ankle injury against the Spartans, and Hammond came off the bench to lead the Falcons to victory.
Hammond threw for 131 yards and a touchdown on 5-for-9 passing last week, and he connected with Geraud Sanders three times for 108 yards and a 64-yard touchdown. Sanders leads the Falcons with 13 receptions, 291 yards, and three touchdowns.
Navy knows the Air Force offense well and won't be surprised by the Falcons' option attack. The Midshipmen have also shown improvement defensively this season, holding opponents to just 251.3 yards per game, which is the best average in the AAC and ranks No. 6 in the country. But it's also worth noting that the Midshipmen have struggled to keep Air Force off the scoreboard recently. Navy hasn't held Air Force to fewer than 28 points in any of the last three meetings, and the Falcons won 35-7 last season while gaining 399 total yards and averaging 6.14 yards per play in the process.
When Navy Has the Ball
Similarly, the Navy triple-option attack has been good to the Midshipmen, who lead the nation in rushing (344.67 ypg) — one spot ahead of Air Force (332.75). Quarterback Malcolm Perry leads the way for the Mids with 275 rushing yards and seven touchdowns. Slot backs Nelson Smith (167 rushing yards, 3 TDs), C.J. Williams (129, TD) and Keoni-Kordell Makekau (110 yards) round out the unit. Williams has done the most damage for Navy as a receiver and leads the team with 117 yards and two TDs on three receptions.
Perry has played quarterback off and on for Navy since his freshman season in 2016, but he has already set career highs with 336 passing yards and three touchdowns through the air. He has completed 17-of-26 pass attempts (65.4 percent) and has averaged 12.9 yards per pass, which would rank No. 2 nationally if he had thrown enough to qualify for the FBS leaderboard. Nevertheless, Perry was on the sideline in the closing minutes against Memphis as Navy turned to freshman QB Perry Olsen in an attempt to overcome a two-score deficit.
Air Force has posted better yards-per-play numbers defensively, holding opponents to 4.78 yards per snap, compared to Navy's 4.99. However, the Falcons have allowed more yardage (304.8, which ranks 28th overall) while playing tougher opposition. Colorado, Boise State, and San Jose State each gained 325 total yards or more against Air Force. Safety Jeremy Fejedelem, defensive lineman Jordan Jackson and linebacker Lakota Wills are all All-Mountain West candidates.
It should come as no surprise that Air Force and Navy are evenly matched teams. The two have posted nearly identical stats on offense, and though the Falcons trail in most major defensive categories, Air Force has also played a tougher schedule. The 30-23 overtime victory the Falcons posted against Colorado was the most impressive for a service academy this year. Air Force also played Boise State close before losing 30-19.
Navy has home-field advantage, but Air Force is more talented defensively. Expect the Falcons to win a tightly contested game and put themselves in position to win the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy for the first time since 2016.
Prediction: Air Force 24, Navy 21