When President Trump told viewers of the 2017 Army-Navy Game that the American classic was “not the best football, but still very, very good,” he was right for the wrong reasons. Trump, a former USFL proprietor, was remarking that college players don’t always run as fast or jump as high as pro players do. That’s true of course, but not what has threatened to make Army vs Navy boring to watch.
With due respect to the service academies – which have carved-out a place among national contenders thanks to the Flexbone offense and a whole lot of spirit – the Army-Navy Game has felt generic at times since Jeff Monken became the head coach at West Point. After all, Monken and Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo are Paul Johnson disciples whose teams run mirrored playbooks.
If you’ve got a soft spot for Midline Option, Scissors, and Rocket Toss, great. If not, there’s no intriguing clash of styles for entertainment when schools are trying the same tactics against each other.
But by 6 PM on December 9th, 2017, anyone calling Army-Navy “not the best football” would have had more screws loose than a politician. Navy had shifted into a Single-Wing with QB Malcolm Perry at the helm, and the electric sophomore dazzled on long dashes as a blizzard blanketed Lincoln Financial Field. In the end, it took a miracle of a shoe-string tackle by Army linebacker John Voit to stop Perry from sprinting into the end zone before the Black Knights drove for the winning points.
The contrast between West Point and Annapolis has become crystal-clear. Monken is a Flexbone purist, guiding the Black Knights to bowl appearances with a crushing ground game, stubborn defense, and ruthless efficiency on 3rd and 4th down. Niumatalolo is a trickster, a deceptive mastermind, as influenced by Bill Belichick as by Paul Johnson.
We know what Army will do on a given Saturday, and the Black Knights usually do it well. It’s hard to predict in what spectacular fashion the Midshipmen will score next – but they sure do an awful lot of scoring.
Army has won the Army-Navy Game 3 years running, a much-needed turnaround after losing 15 of 16 games to Navy since Y2K. But don’t ask gamblers to think about the head-to-head trend line – at least not this December. The Midshipmen are a popular (-10.5) pick against the spread for Saturday afternoon in Philadelphia, while a Black Knights team that has largely underwhelmed since losing 24-21 in OT at Michigan is a (+345) moneyline underdog in a contest with a conservative (40.5) Over/Under total.
Handicapping Army vs Navy in 2019
Perry’s senior season behind center has turned into a doozy for the marvelous Mids. Navy has beaten SMU, Tulane, Air Force, and Houston, running-up a 10-2 overall record and missing out on the American Athletic Conference title game (and a division title) only by virtue of a tie-breaker. Perry has rushed for exactly 1500 yards and 19 touchdowns while improving his passing touch to the tune of 13 yards-per-attempt and a 181.1 rating.
Sophomore Jamale Carothers has blossomed into a rare individual rushing star in Navy’s backfield-by-committee, galloping for 13 touchdowns and averaging over 8 (!) yards-per-carry from the B-back position.
Meanwhile, a blitzing Annapolis defense has improved by leaps and bounds under new DC Brian Newberry. If gamblers haven’t noticed that Navy has a top-40 type of defense to go with its top-20 offense, well, better late than never – a Flexbone team with a Power-5 level D could rip a hole in Las Vegas thanks to the number of casual bettors used to watching Army, Navy, and Air Force labor to out-score opponents. The ’19 Midshipmen held athletic South Florida to just 3 points while scoring 35 of their own, and nearly shut-out Southern Methodist in the 2nd half in a November victory.
2 teams found a formula to beat Navy by multiple scores in 2019, though it’s unclear if Army has the tools to replicate either program’s effort. Memphis met Navy in late September (in what turned out to be the deciding game in the American West) and dominated the Mids on special teams, racking up over 200 yards on punt and kickoff returns to prevail 35-23. But the Black Knights don’t have the speed or the depth to defeat Navy that way.
Likewise, Notre Dame forced a series of costly lost-fumbles from Perry and the Midshipmen, then connected on long bombs for TDs to drown Navy 52-20 in South Bend. However, as talented of a dual-threat as Army QB Kelvin Hopkins Jr. may be, his name is not Ian Book.
Army’s mid-season slump knocked the Black Knights out of a bowl berth. Easy opponents UTSA and Morgan State were dispatched after the Michigan loss, but then came a long slide downhill – a 5-game losing streak began with a 42-33 loss to Tulane and culminated in a painful defeat at the hands of Air Force.
5’9” backup QB Jabari Laws went a terrific 9-of-11 through the air against the Falcons, but was stifled on option-keepers as the Mountain West charges out-gained Army on the ground and won 17-13.
4 weeks later the Hawaii Rainbow Warriors hosted the Black Knights and gave up only 4 touchdowns (a moral win for Hawaii’s poor defense) in a 52-31 victory despite allowing 400+ yards from Monken’s team on the ground.
Even though West Point stands at 5-7 and would earn the usual bowl-requisite 6th win with an upset over Navy on Saturday, current FBS rules stipulate that Army needs 7 victories to qualify for the postseason due to playing a 13-game schedule. This will be the final go-around for Hopkins Jr. and the rest of the Black Knights’ senior class.
There is little injury news that handicappers didn’t already know about. Hopkins Jr. has been sidelined intermittently with an undisclosed ailment, but the 2-week break prior to this weekend’s rivalry game in Philadelphia appears to have helped him out. Likewise, freshman Tama Tuitele is questionable for a Midshipmen LB corps that’s been up and down since ruling the AAC in mid-season. But Tuitele has been banged-up for much of the season, and Newberry is used to going without him.
120th Army-Navy Game: Prediction and Best Betting Line
Pundits sometimes say, “I’m of 2 minds about this game.” I’ve actually been of 3 minds about Army-Navy’s gambling lines this season, and I’m pretty sure my 3rd notion is the correct one.
Army-to-cover (+10.5) is an idea worth considering. Army and Navy know each other’s blocking schemes inside and out, and forget any notion that the Black Knights won’t be as motivated since a bowl game is now out of the question. Quite the contrary, the West Point cadets always treat Saturday’s contest like the most-important scrum of the season, and spoiling Navy’s bid for a Commander-in-Chief trophy would salvage a tough season full of downers.
Navy was a solid pick to cover ATS at (-9), but that ship has sailed already as the line moves toward an 11-point margin. Perry and Caruthers are the kind of difference-makers who can score points in bunches despite playing against 11 fanatics in blood-rivalry combat. But as confident as I am that the Midshipmen will score touchdowns on Saturday, it may not be possible for Newberry’s defense to pitch a shut-out or anything close to it. Navy has relied on blitzes in 2019 and a blitzing scheme creates a crap-shoot against a Flexbone offense that can hurl the ball downfield accurately on play-action.
That’s why Over (40.5) is the best market available. If Navy wins by a blow-out score, mop-up points in the 4th quarter are likely to push the total over no matter what. If Army shoots out to a surprise early lead, Niumatalolo will open things up and let Perry scramble and fling passes in the 2nd half. Any play from scrimmage is potentially explosive given the speed and muscle in the Navy backfield.
Better yet for Over gamblers, the weather forecast predicts a pleasant day in Philly with only a mild breeze. Nothing like the white-out from 2017. Navy’s attack was struggling through a losing season when the Mids lost to Army 17-10 a dozen months ago. This year, there’s no lack of developed talent to hamper either squad’s ability to score, and coaches’ increased willingness to call for the passing game means the clock will actually stop a few times between plays…not exactly the norm for an Army-Navy Game.
Update: Forecasts are now calling for drizzle and potential 10 MPH wind (oh my!), while so-called “sharp money” handicappers point to the trend of low-scoring Army-Navy games. Thank goodness for trend lines and tiny droplets helping the O/U hug 40 points – I’m sticking with my pick and doubling-down.
Wager the Over on a battle that’ll include extra snaps, plenty of razzle-dazzle, and probably a few more points than gamblers and bookmakers are expecting.
Kurt has authored close to 1000 stories covering football, soccer, basketball, baseball, ice hockey, prize-fighting and the Olympic Games. Kurt posted a 61% win rate on 200+ college and NFL gridiron picks last season. He muses about High School football on social media as The Gridiron Geek.