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Navy Midshipmen vs. Air Force Falcons Preview and Prediction

Ken Niumatalolo

Ken Niumatalolo

The Commander-in-Chief's Trophy series opens in 2016 as it does every season, pitting Navy against Air Force. The Midshipmen and Falcons have combined to win every Commander-in-Chief's Trophy for the last 20 years, with Navy claiming last season's, and Air Force winning the year prior.

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With each team sporting an unblemished record ahead of Saturday's matchup in Colorado, the stakes this time around are especially high. The winner could and should get some Top 25 buzz before the meat of their respective conference schedules (Air Force in the Mountain West, Navy in the American Athletic).

Head coaches Troy Calhoun of Air Force and Ken Niumatalolo of Navy have taken their programs to unexpected heights in recent years, and a win Saturday to move to 4-0 sets the 2016 version of their teams for another milestone season.

Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 1 at 3:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBSSN
Spread: Air Force -7 

Three Things to Watch

1. Defensive Slugfest

Through three wins in 2016, Air Force has held opponents to 21, 14 and 20 points, seeing a variety of offensive styles. In the same number of games, Navy's limited opponents to 16, 24 and 14 points. The Falcons and Mids rank No. 27 and No. 25 in scoring defense, respectively.

Bearing those numbers in mind, prepare for Saturday's 49th installment in the series to follow a recent trend: the winner dominates defensively. Since 2012, the loser has failed to score more than 21 points, with Navy grounding Air Force to just 11 points in last season's meeting.

An ability to get into the backfield and disrupt option plays before they can develop should prove crucial to Saturday's outcome. The two have been equally effective on that front early into the campaign, averaging 6.3 tackles for a loss each through three games. Air Force has been dynamite against the run altogether, however, limiting opponents to just 2.01 yards per carry, and 51.67 per game — both third- and second-best in the nation, respectively.

2. Run The Ball

No surprise here: Air Force and Navy come into Saturday's affair ranked among the nation's very best rushing offense. The Falcons' 359.3 rushing yards per game ranks second in the nation, while the Mids post 316.3 per contest. 

While both are option offenses, Calhoun and Niumatalolo employ dramatically different versions of the scheme. Air Force's look deviates regularly from the double-slot formation typical of a triple-option offense.

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Calhoun has proven willing to deploy a dangerous passing attack when available. The Falcons' upset of Boise State last November serves as the primary example, with Air Force hitting the Broncos for 279 passing yards, primarily on home-run balls that exploited the Bronco defense cheating too much for the run.

Not that Air Force doesn't run the ball repeatedly and effectively. This season's Falcons include a pair of 200-yard rushers through three games, Jacobi Owens and D.J. Johnson, while quarterback Nate Romine is not far behind at 174. Romine's also thrown three touchdown passes on the year.

After standout Keenan Reynolds' graduation, Navy hasn't demonstrated the same willingness to pass from its option look quite as frequently as a season ago. That hasn't slowed the Mids, who operate out of the Flexbone.

Quarterback Will Worth took over for Tago Smith after he was hurt in the season opener. Worth's manned the option admirably, and he's had plenty of help from Chris High (263 yards on 26 carries); Dishan Romine (117, 14); and Toneo Gulley (113, 12).

3. Capitalizing on (Rare) Miscues) 

Few teams in college football execute as efficiently as Navy and Air Force. Between them, they have just five turnovers on the season and in 2015, the Mids gave away possession just eight times — fewest in the nation.

Similarly, Navy's 2.3 penalties per game are second fewest in the nation. Air Force has garnered slightly more laundry — 5.7 penalties per game — but typically ranks among the least-penalized teams under Calhoun.

Self-inflicted mistakes such as turnovers and penalties will be in short supply, making exploiting such errors imperative.

Final Analysis

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One would be hard-pressed to find a game with two better coached teams. Troy Calhoun and Ken Niumatalolo routinely get the most out of their squads, and that's been particularly noticeable the last two seasons with Air Force winning 10 games in 2014 and the Mountain West Mountain division in '15; and Navy finishing last season ranked in the top 15.

Saturday's contest should be another well-played chess match, as is customary when these service academies meet. Three of their meetings since 2009 have gone to overtime, and since Calhoun's arrival at Air Force in 2007, six games were decided by single digits.

The two sides should be evenly matched once more. Air Force is the more experienced side, but Navy's performance through three games with a younger lineup dispels any suggestion of hesitance from the Mids. Navy's multifaceted rushing attack needs to capitalize on the first-half absence of standout Air Force safety Weston Steelhammer, serving a disqualification for a Week 4 targeting call.

If Navy can take a lead into the locker room, look for the Mids to carry that over into an important first step toward another Commander-in-Chief's Trophy.

Prediction: Navy 24, Air Force 21

— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Kensing is publisher of Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.