This is Part 5 of my “First Look” series, in which I take a quick peek at each of the Air Force football team’s 2010 opponents. We’re going in order, one per week, with this week’s focus on you know who.
Coach: Ken Niumatalolo (3rd year)
2009 Record: 10-4
2009 vs. AF: Navy 16, Air Force 13 (OT)
2009 in a Sentence: The Midshipmen opened the season by putting a scare into Ohio State in Columbus, finished it with a 35-13 triumph over Missouri in the Texas Bowl and in between won nine regular season games, including victories over Air Force and Army that gave them the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy for the seventh consecutive season.
Off/Def Starters Back: 7/5
Roster Report: Navy – like Air Force – will have the majority of its key skilled position players back on offense.
The Midshipmen will return their top six rushers from the 2009 team that ranked fourth in the nation in rushing (280.5 yards per game) and four of that squad’s top five receivers. Most importantly, they return standout quarterback Ricky Dobbs. In 2009 Dobbs rushed for 1,203 yards and passed for 1,031 yards to become just the third quarterback in program history to eclipse 1,000 yards rushing and passing in a season. Dobbs, who played with a broken kneecap during Navy’s last six games and missed the majority of two contests, set the NCAA single-season touchdown record for quarterbacks with 27.
Dobbs will have a fairly experienced line in front of him, as three starters (senior tackles Jeff Battipaglia and Matt Molloy and junior center Eric Douglass) return along with junior guard/center Brady DeMell, who saw significant time in 2009.
And he’ll have some skilled players surrounding him, including senior fullback Vince Murray, (971 yards on 182 carries, just one fumble) and slot back Marcus Curry (585 yards on 80 carries, five touchdowns).
Defensively, the Midshipmen lost six starters to graduation, including all four linebackers. Among them were the 2009 team’s top two tacklers – Ross Pospisil and Tony Haberer – and stalwart Ram Vela.
Here’s what Bill Wagner, The Annapolis Capital’s Navy beat writer, wrote about the defense on the day of the annual Blue-Gold game which concludes spring drills.
“Navy lost six starters and several key backups on defense so it was not surprising that a slew of new names emerged on that side of the ball. Plebes Josh Dowling-Fitzpatrick, Josh Jones and Wes Henderson stepped up at end while Shane Bothel and Jared Marks both had strong camps at nose guard. Backup outside linebacker Andrew Sharp was one of the most pleasant surprises of spring practice while inside linebacker Max Blue was vastly improved.
Sophomore cornerback David Wright took his game to another level while freshman safeties Tra’ves Bush and Dylan Porlas showed they could play. [Defensive coordinator] Green was also very encouraged by the development of Cory James, who switched from slot back to corner prior to spring ball and adapted quickly to the new position.”
Wagner also wrote that rising juniors Aaron McCauley and Caleb King emerged at outside and inside linebacker, respectively.
“I think we’re going to be OK at linebacker,” Niumatalolo told Wagner. “That was an area of concern because of what we lost, but I was impressed by the potential of the young guys coming up.”
Navy also returns kicker Joe Buckley, who kicked three field goals against Air Force, including the game-winner in overtime. He made 10-of-13 field goals on the year and was 44-for-44 on extra points.
Fast Fact: If Navy becomes bowl-eligible by winning six games, it will receive an automatic bid to the Poinsettia Bowl. This likely means Air Force can cross the bowl, played in San Diego, off its list of potential destinations. In 2007, Navy had a similar agreement with the bowl and Air Force was passed over to avoid a rematch of the teams’ regular season game.
What Caught My Eye: Navy has a bye the week before playing Air Force. Now, in 2008, Air Force had a bye the week before playing Navy and lost. But it’s noteworthy that Navy gets a week off before the game considering the Falcons will be coming off four straight games, including a grueling three-week stretch: vs. BYU, at Oklahoma, at Wyoming.
Something else that caught my eye is that the Midshipmen finished 2009 ranked No. 1 in fewest penalties per game (3.4) and fewest penalty yards per game (29.6).
Jake’s Way Too Early Line vs. Air Force: Pick ‘em. The Falcons will have home field advantage. The Midshipmen have a bye the week before the game and the psychological advantage of knowing that Air Force hasn’t beaten them since before the Falcon basketball program’s brief period of prosperity.
Final Thought: No matter how close Air Force has come to beating Navy in recent years and how many what-ifs continue to haunt fans (What if Navy had blocked only one punt in 2008? What if Air Force capitalized in the red zone in 2007? What if the Falcons got more aggressive in overtime last season?), here’s the bottom line: Navy has found ways to win, while Air Force hasn’t. In 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2009.
Under Troy Calhoun, the Falcons have established themselves as a contender in the Mountain West Conference, become a perennial bowl participant and last season ended a victory drought in bowl games.
This season they have a chance to break into the upper tier of the MWC and get to another bowl. But those goals are dwarfed compared to ending the losing streak against the Midshipmen.