With a 5-6 record, Army won't just be playing for pride come Saturday, as a win over Navy would assure coach Rich Ellerson's team of their first postseason birth in more than a decade. The stakes are high for Navy, too, with Ken Niumatalolo's Midshipmen eager to prove that they still hold a firm grasp on the CIC trophy, and that they hold a decisive advantage over the upstart Cadets. When it comes to personnel matchups, Navy has gotten the better of Army over the past seven years, owning a clear advantage in terms of both team speed and scheme adaptability. Has Army evened the score when it comes to matching up with Navy's athletes? We won't know until gametime, when these three key position battles figure to decide the outcome of the greatest rivalry in all of sport.
How tough is it to make your first career Army-Navy start against a veteran defense which knows your offensive scheme inside and out? Just ask former Navy quarterback and option great Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku Enhada, who struggled mightily in his first Army-Navy game in 2006. The problem with playing a defense that usually sees the option on a regular basis is that the defenders, in particular the defensive ends, have a feel for how to confuse the quarterback. Army has brought Steelman along slowly this year, and despite making progress, the freshman has still been hit-or-miss with his option reads. That's bad news for Army fans when you consider that Navy defensive end Jabaree Tuani may very well be the best defensive lineman Navy has seen in the last decade, and has shown outstanding diagnostic ability in practice against Navy's own option offense. Fast enough to chase down Steelman from the backside and intelligent enough to not over commit on option plays, Tuani gives Navy an edge in stopping Army's option attack.
Navy QB Ricky Dobbs vs. Army MLB Kyler Martin
Following Navy's 24-17 loss to Hawaii, head coach Ken Niumatalolo admitted that his team and his quarterback "missed" some checks and reads. That being said, Dobbs has been right on the money in executing Navy's option offense for much of the season, and is just one rushing touchdown shy of breaking Tim Tebow's single season record for rushing touchdowns by a quarterback. A true battering ram, stopping Dobbs and the inside running game in Navy's attack will fall on Army linebacker Kyler Martin. Martin, a true freshman, made his first start against VMI two games ago, but is still young and inexperienced in the grand scheme of things. At 200 pounds he is a bit on the smaller side, and could have trouble standing up Dobbs in close yardage situations. Dobbs' ability to power his way past Martin and the inside of Army's attack-oriented defense could end up being the deciding factor if this game becomes close.
Army WR Ali Villanueva vs. Navy DB Blake Carter
By now, you've probably heard that Villanueva can talk the talk, so to speak. But can the 6-foot-10 wide receiver walk the walk? That's the question we will find out on Saturday, as Army's most consistent red-zone threat this season takes on one of the best Navy cornerbacks in recent memory. Blake Carter has quietly had a great senior season for the Mids, and has excelled in one-on-one coverage against some of the nation's best wide receivers, including Notre Dame's Michael Floyd. While he proved he can cover tall receivers by going up against the likes of Floyd as well as Pitt's Jonathan Baldwin, Carter has yet to cover a receiver with the kind of mass of Villanueva, who stands out among all FBS wide receivers in terms of his height and weight. Villanueva has shown remarkable athleticism for his size, snagging 29 balls for 460 yards and five scores for the year. Not only has he managed to help breath life into Army's offense, but he's even drawn the attention of several NFL scouts. With the Black Knights likely to struggle in establishing a perimeter running game against Navy's defense, it will be essential that Ellerson and his staff try to get the ball to Villanueva, who has the potential to be the game-changing performer the Cadets need to pull the upset.