Sports

Army Hosts Air Force In Pivotal, Proud Matchup

Trent Steelman #8 of the Army Black Knights runs with the ball against the Duke Blue Devils at Wallace Wade Stadium on September 25, 2010 in Durham, North Carolina. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

Trent Steelman #8 of the Army Black Knights runs with the ball against the Duke Blue Devils at Wallace Wade Stadium on September 25, 2010 in Durham, North Carolina. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

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WEST POINT, N.Y. (AP) — It’s not often Navy roots for Army. Mark this week as an exception.

The Black Knights (5-3) host Air Force (5-4) on Saturday at Michie Stadium, and the Midshipmen are in real danger of losing the iron grip on the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy they’ve won outright the past seven years in dominating the service academy games.

The Falcons beat Navy 14-6 in early October, stopping the Middies’ 15-game winning streak in service academy play, and the hardware that’s emblematic of supremacy among the three schools is now up for grabs.

A victory by Army would set up a showdown against Navy in December, while Air Force can claim its first Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy since 2002 with a win.

“It would be quite an accomplishment,” said Falcons coach Troy Calhoun, who was a member of Air Force’s CIC-winning teams in 1985 and 1987. “It is something they are aware of, and yet it’s going to be a strong task. We know that we’re going to have to play a heck of a football team.”

“I know our guys are excited to play,” Army coach Rich Ellerson said. “The buzz around the team is an intense one. We have to play on the edge, but we have to play on this side of the edge, not the other.”

Air Force would seem to have an edge this time.

The Falcons have beaten the Black Knights six consecutive times at Michie Stadium, Army has lost nine straight in the three-way rivalry, and Air Force, despite a three-game losing streak, has been severely tested. Its last two losses were to a pair of unbeaten teams ranked among the top six in the country — 38-7 at TCU and 28-24 to Utah. The Falcons also lost 27-24 at then-No. 7 Oklahoma in mid-September.

Oh, and Army hasn’t beaten a team with a winning record in five years. The Black Knights have lost 21 straight games against teams with winning records since beating Arkansas State 38-10 in November 2005.

Still, the Black Knights have begun to excel under Ellerson and gave both Rutgers and Temple difficult games before losing late. The Owls won by a touchdown at Michie Stadium after trailing 28-13 midway through the third quarter, and the Scarlet Knights triumphed in overtime after falling behind 17-3.

“Obviously, Navy and Air Force have been consistently good, and occasionally great, for years, especially Air Force,” Ellerson said. “We’re trying to get to that. We’re battling into that mode. We’ve made some great progress, but there is an awful lot of football to be played, especially this week, before we can say that we belong.”

The game features two teams that run the option, usually with great precision. The Falcons rank second in the nation in rushing, averaging 313 yards per game, and Army is seventh with an average of 281. The Black Knights (26) and Falcons (27) are two of only eight teams in the nation to have as many as 26 rushing touchdowns.

If Air Force has a weakness, it’s turnovers. The Utes forced five last week and stopped the Falcons on downs twice in the fourth quarter to preserve their win. Army has a turnover margin of +1.25, fifth-best in the country, compared to Air Force’s -0.11.

“Where Air Force has struggled and when they’ve struggled and how they’ve struggled is largely been due to that turnover battle,” Ellerson said. “That needs to work in our favor.”

There’s even more on the line than usual. All three service academies have winning records — a rarity at this juncture of the season — and all are vying for the postseason.

If Army can win one of its next three, it will be bowl eligible for the first time since 1996, when it qualified for the Independence Bowl. If that win comes Saturday, it would be that much sweeter.

“You can’t win a bowl game if you don’t get into one,” Ellerson said. “So, everything’s on the table.”

Including that prized hardware Navy has owned for too long.

“It is a bigger game than most of us have played in a while,” Air Force offensive guard Tyler Schonsheck said. “We joke around at the start of the year that if we lose every game, but beat Army and Navy we’ve had a successful year. It gives us a chance to finish the year on a successful note.”

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.