As the 2023 Army-Navy Game approaches, fans will do as they do every year. After another exhilarating season of college football, they’ll catch their breath for a brief respite before bowl season. They’ll spend the next few weeks weening themselves from constant streaming, MACtion, Pac-12 After Dark, and the CBS SEC Game of the Week. They’ll (maybe, but not likely) rest their Twitter Thumbs (or X Appendage) for a few days until portal announcements and early singing day roll around. And they’ll get one last taste of the college football regular season with the annual spectacle that is the Army-Navy Game.
2023 Army-Navy Game: A Study in Football Evolution
And it’s a good thing, too, because college football is changing like never before. The old saying that the more things change, the more they stay the same has never been more wrong. The incessant need for more money is causing college football to evolve at a break-neck pace. And this evolution is irrevocably changing the sport. The annual Army-Navy Game is one of the few moments we have left to appreciate the quintessential greatness of the sport of college football.
The Game Preview
When: Saturday, December 9th, 3:00 p.m. ET
Where: Gillette Stadium, Foxboro, Massachusetts
Line: Army -3
Changing of the Guard
It’s a new era for the Army-Navy Game, and the tides of fortune seem to be turning. For the first time in 21 years, and for only the fourth time in 28 years, Ken Niumatalolo will not be on the Navy sideline. Niumatalolo was 11-5 against Army in his 16-year head coaching stint. But as Niumatalolo exits the scene, Army head coach Jeff Monken will see his tenth Army-Navy game as Army’s head coach. Monken is 5-4 in the rivalry game, and Army is enjoying its best clip of success since Bob Sutton’s pre-9/11 Army teams.
Both teams have disappointed this season. The NCAA’s decision to outlaw blocking below the waist outside of the tackle box forced both teams to adjust their flexbone offenses for 2023. Army went to a shotgun-style of option offense and their typical grinding offense ground to a halt. Navy stayed with their similar offense, but injuries and poor execution have kept their offense dry-docked. Both teams enter the game at 5-6.
The Army Side
Army started the season 2-6 before upsetting 23rd ranked Air Force in early November, 23-3. That win not only ruined Air Force’s undefeated record, it also put Army in position for the coveted Commander-in-Chief Trophy and ignited a three-game win streak. Army fans were excited to see the Black Knights move back under center and return to their previous offense against Coastal Carolina. Black Knight fans will be looking closely at the first play to see what offense Monken and company roll out against Navy as they try to make it two in a row.
Army quarterback Bryson Daily has over 100 passing attempts this season for 859 yards. That’s the most passing yards for an Army quarterback since 2018 and the second-highest total in the last 13 years. Daily also leads the Black Knights in rushing with 817 yards. Army will rotate between five primary ball carriers other than Daily, with promising freshman Kanye Udoh and fifth-year senior Jakobi Buchanan two key players to watch.
On the defensive side, senior linebacker Leo Lowin leads an Army defense that, like the offense, seems to be finding their footing in the second half of the season.
The Navy Side
Navy has struggled with injuries and inconsistency on offense as well all season. Navy has used three quarterbacks throughout the season. If healthy, senior Tai Lavatai will lead the Midshipmen against Army on Saturday. Lavatai has struggled through the air this season, completing passes at 53.3%. Lavatai also hasn’t been as successful in the run game as in the past, either. Navy will rely on Alex Tecza and Daba Fofana on the ground. And don’t be surprised to see Xavier Arline at either quarterback or running back for the Mids offense. The constant rotation of a focal point for the Navy offense is one contributing factor to their lack of success on offense this season.
The Navy defense is led by junior linebacker Colin Ramos. Ramos isn’t the biggest linebacker you’ll ever see, but he flies around the field and had a nose for the ball. Navy’s defense has been fairly solid this year but has been susceptible to passing offenses. It’ll be interesting to see if Army tries to take advantage of that, or just sticks to a conservative ground game.
Daily’s ability to pass against the Navy defense and Army’s special teams will be the difference in this game. Army wins the 2023 Army-Navy Game and their final game as an Independent, 24-10.
Everyone knows that Army-Navy isn’t just about the game, though. And that’s a good thing in the new era of the “eye-test.” If an undefeated Power 5 Conference Champion can’t make it to the big kids’ table, Army and Navy don’t stand a chance. And that’s not a surprise in an age of Name-Image-Likeness (NIL) rules allowing collectives to pay players, virtually unlimited transfer opportunities for players, and non-sensical rule changes undercutting these two programs.
Army and Navy players can’t take advantage of the NIL money. Transferring into one of these two programs is virtually impossible. And the NCAA is literally changing the rules to eliminate the style of play that is most advantageous to schools that have height and weight standards for their entire student body in the name of more advertising attractive high-powered offense.
The modern game is evolving more and more away from the sport that Army-Navy embodies. Army’s recent move to the American Athletic Conference was forced by the financial realities of being an Independent not named Notre Dame. When the 12-team playoff contract comes up, there will be virtually no money for any team outside of a conference. The game is rotating around the Northeast and away from its traditional, natural home in Philadephia, in an effort to generate more revenue.
Everything is stacked against these two schools.
But here they are. Still playing. Still winning. And still with a national spotlight at the end of the season.
Last year’s Army-Navy game was the 14th most-watched game of the season and drew more viewers than the average SEC on CBS Game.
Both student bodies still attend the game in their entirety. They even March-On to the field before taking their seats a few hours before kick. Presidents, Generals, and Dignitaries still flock to the game.
Here they are. Still playing. And still winning. But why?
Because they’re fighters. They’re players who want to play and want to win. The players aren’t there to better their draft stock or increase their marketing value. They aren’t at either of these schools because of the NIL checks. They are here to fight. To fight to make themselves better. To fight to win football games. And, eventually, to fight in other places for other purposes.
And therein lies the reason why Army-Navy lives on in the greedy, money-driven evolution of college football. It’s because football doesn’t exist to generate money — that’s not why youngsters play in the yard at night. That’s not why high school coaches toil in obscurity. That’s not why videos of walk-ons getting scholarships bring grown men to tears.
Football is a vehicle to learn life’s most important lessons. That’s why football exists. And that’s why Army-Navy still survives, and somewhat thrives, as a counter to the malevolution of the sport. It’s because those two teams embody those life lessons that football teaches so perfectly.
So enjoy the game on Saturday. And try to see the true essence of the sport played out on the field by fighters. In this fleeting day and age of college football, it could disappear at any moment.