Army-Navy: The Black Knights' Perspective

The Army Black Knights hired Jeff Monken to beat Ken Niumatalolo and Navy. However, Monken doesn't have the better team or the better quarterback in his first Army-Navy Game this Saturday. West Point faces a fundamentally uncomfortable situation, and it's better to acknowledge that than to pretend that easy answers are going to be found heading into 2015.

The message was sent loud and clear a year ago, after yet another loss to Navy: Bowl game or no bowl game, Army has to eclipse Annapolis sooner rather than later. This is not the SEC or the Big Ten. It’s not about relevance in the College Football Playoff hunt or in the race for a conference championship. Yet, in this small corner of the Football Bowl Subdivision, Army’s athletic department showed that darnit, it’s long past time to beat Navy.

It was quite refreshing to see such ambition as manifested in the decision to fire Rich Ellerson. The move showed how much Army wants to recapture the sweet taste of victory over the Midshipmen, a sensation not felt since 2001 and only once since 1998. Yes, if Army can get to the point where 7-5 is a disappointing season (as is the case for Navy this year), chances are it will indeed defeat its service-academy rival. Yet, for anyone and everyone who cares about West Point football, a season-long record takes a distinct back seat compared to winning that one game on the second Saturday of December.

Jeff Monken was hired to win this game. He was hired to win on Saturday.

That’s why this week offers such an uncomfortable and inconvenient situation for the Black Knights and their fans.

You’ve quite possibly seen Navy struggle for much of this season. The Midshipmen began 2014 thinking of winning 10 games at minimum, but they fell well below expectations. There is a chance Navy could play another spotty and inconsistent game on Saturday, in which case Army would have a fighting chance. However, if you’ve seen Navy for much of the season, you’ve seen Army for the full season, and the Black Knights – based on what they’ve shown in 11 games so far – are not yet ready to beat the Midshipmen. That’s just being honest.

Navy’s defense has been punctured by South Alabama and Notre Dame over the past few games, but the Jaguars and Irish fielded balanced offenses that could strike with the pass, not just the run. Army’s lack of offensive diversity, combined with the fact that Navy’s offense has awakened from its midseason slumber (closely connected to improved health for quarterback Keenan Reynolds), clearly shows that Navy is the more skilled team. The Midshipmen are blessed with more resources than the Black Knights – if the turnover differential is zero on Saturday or even a mere plus-one for Army, it will be hard to expect Monken to get the better of Niumatalolo on the scoreboard.

Would it be an amazing moment if Monken can somehow win this game for Army? Sure it would. Yet, hoping for the fairy-tale ending in Baltimore cannot change the reality that the Black Knights face long odds and – beyond that – an uphill battle in their attempt to not just beat Navy, but build up the program to the point where victory over Navy can be expected. It’s one thing to hope for victory. It’s quite another to expect victory. While a lot of West Pointers might view this next statement as harsh, it’s not fundamentally untrue: Army hopes for a win against Navy. The Midshipmen are in a frame of mind where they expect to win. This is what Jeff Monken is swimming against in the days before his first Army-Navy Game.

The bottom line: Even though Monken was hired to win this specific game, he can’t be expected to put all the pieces together in his first year. Army was impressively (perhaps counterintuitively) impatient with Ellerson a year ago, but this year can’t bring about the same impatience. This program will fight as hard as it can, and it might be able to win if Navy puts the ball on the turf several times, but Army just might have to eat one loss under Monken before it learns how to handle Navy with this coaching staff.

That’s definitely an uncomfortable and unsatisfying position, and it might make a lot of Army fans unsettled, maybe even angry.

Yet, when you think about it, 12 straight losses to Navy should produce no other kind of situation – of course this is uncomfortable and unsatisfying. It should be. Don’t judge Jeff Monken too completely or firmly based on one afternoon… unless he wins.

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