Army-Navy Game Vital for Recruiting

They say it's the most important game of the season. As this year's de facto bowl game for both Army and Navy teams which have underperformed, Saturday's annual rivalry will be for all the marbles. But the game's importance extends beyond the symbolic. Center stage before an entire nation of prep football players, the game is by far the biggest recruiting tool Army and Navy wield.

But don't take my word for it. The recruits – in many cases garnering attention from both Army and Navy – say that the chance to play in a prestigious event like the Army-Navy game is one of the biggest draws to attending a service academy.

"Tradition plays a role in what school I or any kid would go to," explained E.K. Binds, a 6-foot-3, 275-pound defensive tackle who has an offer from the Naval Academy and hears from Navy assistant coaches on a weekly basis.

"Being able to and having the potential to play in a game with that magnitude is big," said Binds.

Like many players being recruited by Navy, the Hawaii native does not currently have many opportunities to play on the Football Bowl Championship (F.B.S.) level, so having the chance to play on national television and in an NFL stadium carries a certain amount of weight against opportunities presented for playing for smaller-name schools. That the game is now the only F.B.S. game played during the second week of December also helps, as does the attention given to it through various media outlets, including Showtime's documentary, A Game of Honor.

For the schools themselves, the chance to reach out to a national audience is invaluable, providing an unencumbered microcosm of their tradition and success to potential prep players.

"Us -- like Army and other schools, we recruit nationally," said Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo during the Army-Navy press conference. "We're not a regional school, so we're always looking for different services -- video services, technological advances – to try to help us have a broader brush reaching out to people."

"We don't have it in our budget to get the kind of exposure we're going to get this Saturday," he continued. "It's unparalleled in the kind of exposure we're going to get. I know it means a lot to our program and school."

It's especially important given that many of the players who are considering the two schools will not be in attendance on Saturday. Navy commitment Toneo Gulley -- a 5-foot-7 running back from Kenosha, Wisconsin -- said travel costs will keep him from making the visit to Landover, Maryland, but said he'd be watching on television. Likewise, Jordan Marshall, a defensive back who currently holds offers from both Army and Navy, said he's still unsure if he'll be at the game, but would make sure to "definitely" watch on television.

While recruits considering both Army and Navy cite the game as one of the major draws in attending an Academy to play football, they're less inclined to make a commitment to either school based solely on which team wins.

"Whoever wins doesn't determine it," stated Marshall. "After I take my visits to both schools it will probably determine it."

Binds agreed, saying that his primarily reason for considering Navy is based on his interaction with the coaching staff and comfort level with the school. But while most recruits agree the body of work for each school – both on and off the field – ultimately determines where they choose to take their talents, current Navy quarterback Kriss Proctor isn't letting that fact dissuade him from connecting the dots of a Navy win Saturday and the potential to attract recruits.

"Any rivalry game across the nation, teams are going to be one; competitive, and two; competitive in recruiting. Without a doubt. Our team has something to prove in this game. Without a doubt we are trying to show recruits what this season could have been, and what this program still is."

Defense will carry the day

Watching several of the conference championship games this past weekend, one thing that stood out to me more than anything else was that defense really does win championships. Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy wasn't just lobbying for his own team's National Title hopes when he said as much after the Cowboys knocked off Oklahoma 44-10. Rather, Gundy was affirming a maxim which we'll most likely see in action this Saturday for the Army-Navy game.

Looking back at the last two Army Navy games, it's been apparent that the arrival of Rich Ellerson at West Point has signaled a shift away from the days of 2004 and 2005 when Navy's offense could just cut through Army's defense. The past two seasons, the game has instead seen more of an emphasis on attrition and sudden changes when determining who takes momentum and who ultimately comes out on top. Obviously, anytime you deal with two teams running very similar offenses you'll see the defenses tighten up, but what's allowed Navy's defense to effectively shutdown Army's offense has been the ability to create scores on defense. Case in point, Wyatt Middleton's 98-yard fumble return for a touchdown in last year's game. Not only did it cause a 14-point swing in the game, but it dramatically swung momentum in favor of the Mids. And after eight years of losing to Navy going into the game, Army's players could not afford to lose momentum. After that point, it just became too easy for the same pattern of falling behind to work its way into their collective mindset. Which leads me to my next point…

How ‘bout them Aggies?

What makes a longtime cellar dweller finally turn the corner? Is it stockpiling talent in recruiting classes? Is it catching lucky breaks? Is it as simple as great X's and O's coaching?

It's been almost a decade since Paul Johnson turned Navy around from a winless team to a bowl-bound program, and in that time we as followers of the program may have forgotten just how difficult that first step is. During the two years I spent as a student at Utah State University, however, I became painfully reacquainted with the frustration felt by both the coaches and players in "breaking through."

This year has been a different story for Utah State. For the first time since 1993 the Aggies are going bowling, thanks in no small part to five consecutive wins. Those wins haven't come easy though for Utah State, which has won all five of those games by a combined 19 points. Looking back on early season losses to Auburn and Brigham Young (as well as two previous years of close losses) you would have never believed the Aggies could overcome their "unlucky" streak of choking down the stretch. Yet somewhere the players have found the "will" to win.

So, what has changed?

It's the question I've been asking myself for the past month, and the only answer I can arrive at is far from scientific. Supported by numbers or not, I've come to accept the idea that winning – especially in college sports – is subject to a mindset. It's the mindset that becomes addicted to the euphoria of winning, as well as everything that and comes along with winning. It's to experiencing the stark contrast between a campus congratulating you and celebrating your accomplishments week after week, and juxtaposing that response with the apathetic voices asking each other what they'll be doing on Saturday instead of going to the stadium. It's easy to get stuck into the mindset of losing when it's habitual, and like all patterns in life, it's tough to break on an individual level and as a team. Yet Gary Andersen has done a tremendous job in opening up this world for his players, who have done the rest by choosing to fight for a win up to the very last second of each and every game.

As Navy regroups this offseason, it'll be important for the upperclassmen on the team – as well as the staff members – to remind the underclassman of what it's like to both experience those contrasts. Only by understanding the difference between sitting at home in December and playing in a bowl game can the players choose to embrace the kind of attitude we've seen out of Utah State this year, and the kind of "will to win" that we saw Paul Johnson's first Navy team play with in 2003.

Questions? Comments? Suggestions? Feel free to email Adam Nettina at AdamNettina – at – Top Stories