Navy-Air Force: Recap

Service Academy football fans who stayed up late Monday night finally got to see the Anthony Schlegel-Kyle Eckel matchup. Schlegel, a former linebacker for Air Force, started for the Bengals on "Monday Night Football." Former Navy fullback Eckel finished the game for the Patriots, who won 34-13.

The pair is involved in one of the great "what ifs?" for Service Academy fans. What if Schlegel had stayed at Air Force and been on the field against Navy in 2003 at FedEx Field? Schlegel would have been a junior that day, as Eckel was.

Schlegel left the academy following the 2002 season and transferred to Ohio State. His situation at Air Force had become untenable and it was probably best for both parties that he went elsewhere.

In two years, though, Schlegel had become somewhat of a legend at AF. The AP reported that he used to wrestle 400-pound wild boars with his bare hands in his native Texas. A friend had a younger brother who played fullback against Schlegel in high school. On the first play, Schlegel dented my buddy's brother's facemask on a tackle. The brother played lacrosse thereafter.

There are similar stories about Eckel--how he had been recruited by West Virginia, how he lost one of his front teeth, how surprised the new Navy coaches were to find someone with his talent in an 0-10 team, etc.

It is fun to think about what might have happened between him and Eckel had they met that day in 2003. Navy's 28-25 victory often is cited as the program's turning point. Eckel led the way--he finished with 176 yards rushing, including a crucial fourth-down run that he turned into a touchdown in the fourth quarter.

Eckel gained most of those yards running up the middle--right where Schlegel would have been. Would he have gained 176 yards had he been running into Schlegel? If he gained, say, 120 yards instead, would it have been enough for Navy to win?

There are several reasons why the 2003 AF game is considered the turning point for Navy. Not least were that it gave the Midshipmen confidence and an edge in recruiting against Air Force. Paul Johnson just needed the talent to even out a little; he and Buddy Green and the other coaches had every other gameday edge on an aging, well-fed Air Force coaching staff.

Turning that rivalry around, especially so quickly, is one of Paul Johnson's greatest achievements. Our friends across the pond have a similar example. When Alex Ferguson was hired at Manchester United in 1986, his primary objective was to get his team to surpass their most hated rivals, Liverpool, the most successful team in England.

"We have to be better than [expletive] Liverpool," Ferguson is reported to have said numerous times. According to Ferguson's autobiography, when he arrived at United he found a team spoiled by high pay, rife with post-match drinking problems and used to notoriously soft practices. He changed all that. By 1991 United had won a European title, by 1992 it was contending for a league title, by 1993 it had won the title, etc.

Meantime, Liverpool has gone 18 years (and counting) without winning a league title. The worm has turned toward Manchester, no question.

Much as the worm in the Commander-in-Chief's trophy has turned away from Colorado Springs. Army's win over Temple and strong performance against Boston College means it's way too early to put Navy's name on the trophy for a fifth straight year.

But one thing is certain--the Falcons will not win it this year.

It all started at FedEx Field in Sept. 2003. The Brigade unveiled the "I believe that we will win" cheer and highlights of their joyous bouncing up and down, as well as Eckel's jaunt through the heart of the AF defense on that fourth down for the clinching touchdown following a timeout, remain as vivid today as they were then.

Johnson saw an opening in the AF defense with Schlegel gone, and as with most of what he does, he used to his advantage. Would Eckel have gained 176 yards had Schlegel played? Would Navy have won?

Ferguson once remarked, "That's football, bloody hell." Air Force fans know the feeling.


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