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COVID-19 sends Army-Navy football game to West Point for only seventh on-campus meeting

 The game continues amid the pandemic:

 Army and Navy will meet Saturday for the 121st time, remaining as planned while other rivalries — including Ohio State and Michigan, originally set for Saturday — become casualties of COVID-19.

There are no secrets between Army and Navy, two programs tied by tradition, bonds between coaches, offensive styles and the neutral-site affair that typically stands alone as the only game played on the final weekend of the regular season.

That won't be the case in 2020. With the season extending deeper into December than ever before, Army-Navy is just one of 38 games set for Saturday (a random regular-season Saturday last year had 58 games).

“It is the Army-Navy game and (under) very unprecedented circumstances this year, but it’s really just another football game, fundamentally and scheme-wise," said Army offensive lineman Connor Finucane.

Army  marches on the field before the game against  Navy last year.

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Another two changes to the traditional rhythm and routine of the series seem to favor the Black Knights, making this the rivalry's first installment in generations to be simultaneously influenced by factors such as home-field advantage and the time each team has to prepare.

Both teams have had schedules made and remade to meet the pandemic. Navy had three conference games in a row canceled or postponed to open November and went nearly an entire month, from Halloween until Nov. 28, without playing a game. Army had one game canceled, against Brigham Young on Oct. 19, and had to move the rivalry with Air Force, the last leg in the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy, from Nov. 7 to Dec. 19.

Two of the Midshipmen's postponed conference games were rescheduled for the past two weeks: Navy lost 10-7 to Tulsa on Nov. 28 and lost 19-6 to Memphis last Saturday, sending the program on a four-game losing streak for just the third time in coach Ken Niumatalolo's 13 seasons. Meanwhile, Army has not played since Nov. 21.

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Army and Navy would head into the rivalry under normal conditions with two weeks to prepare, with one caveat: Should Navy reach the American Athletic Conference championship game, as the Midshipmen did in 2016, that game would be held during the traditional off week leading into the rivalry.

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"The first time we didn’t have a bye is when the streak broke," Niumatalolo told USA TODAY Sports, referring to Army's 21-17 win in 2016 that snapped Navy's 14-game winning streak in the series. "I realized then, like, you know what? You need that time to prepare. It helps you.

"Having time to prepare for an opponent is definitely an advantage. You can look at all the film. That’s your one opponent; you’re not worried about other teams. But I've also come to the conclusion that we’re in a league, we made that decision. We were happy to be in that championship game."

Navy marches on the field before the Army game last season.

Navy butted into a similar situation with this year's game against Air Force, a 40-7 loss that saw the Midshipmen held under 100 yards rushing for the first time in four seasons. While Navy's third game, the rivalry matchup was the Air Force season opener, leading Niumatalolo to groan, "Where else in the country would you play for something of value and everybody's schedules are not the same?"

Saturday's game was supposed to be played in Philadelphia, which has hosted six of the past eight games and 89 meetings overall, including in every year from 1945-82. However, due to state restrictions on occupancy at outdoor events that would have prevented the entire Corps of Cadets and Brigade of Midshipmen from being in attendance, the two academies decided to move the game to West Point, New York, by virtue of the Black Knights being designated the "home team" in this year's matchup.

The rivalry hasn't been played at Michie Stadium since 1943, during the heyday of service academy dominance in football, and has been held in West Point or Annapolis, Maryland, just six times in the 120-year history of the series. Four of those meetings came from 1890-93.

“At first, I was disappointed. I didn’t really want to go up there,” said Navy cornerback Cameron Kinley. “Then I thought about the opportunity we have in front of us as a team. To travel up to West Point for the first time since World War II and beat them on their home field and in their own stadium, it doesn’t get much better than that.”

It won't be a traditional away game for the Midshipmen. Attendance will be set for roughly 9,000 spectators, a quarter of the stadium's 38,000-seat capacity, and split evenly between Cadets and Midshipmen. (The game typically draws upward of 70,000 at venues such as Philadelphia's Lincoln Financial Field.) 

There are still obvious advantages in being the home team, from the seemingly mundane – access to a larger locker room, for example, or the ability to stay on campus while Navy travels north – to the less definable mental edge that may come with playing in a friendlier environment.

“Being played (at West Point) doesn’t make it any less exciting for us and I’m certain for (Navy),’’ Army coach Jeff Monken said.

It might not matter. Army is 7-2 and fresh off a 28-27 win against Georgia Southern, the team's best victory of the season. The Black Knights have made four appearances in the Amway Coaches Poll, rising as high as No. 22 in Week 10. Now 3-6 with losses to opponents with a combined record of 34-13, Navy will finish with a losing record for the third time since 2003.

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Yet in a rivalry often settled by single possessions and even individual plays – seven of the past nine meetings have been decided by seven or fewer points, with Navy holding a 4-3 edge in those games – even a subtle advantage could be enough to tilt the balance toward the Black Knights.

"We’re excited about the opportunity to play it here and play on our home field and dress in our home locker room and all those things, but once the game starts, it's the Army-Navy game and there aren’t advantages outside of the lines," Monken said.

"The advantages you gain, you have to gain by executing the fundamentals, your assignments and playing better. That's the challenge because it's a big game, it’s emotional, and so I just hope we're going to play well.’’


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