Navy football coach Ken Niumatalolo will lead the Midshipmen into a game at Air Force for the seventh time on Saturday.
This trip to Colorado Springs will have a unique feel.
“I really don’t know what to expect,” Niumatalolo said. “None of us have done this before. Obviously, we’ve played there many times when it’s a full stadium. This will be different.”
Navy (1-1, 1-0 in the American Athletic Conference) and Air Force (0-0) will meet for the 53rd time in a rivalry that the Falcons lead 30-22. Kickoff is set for 6 p.m. Saturday on CBS Sports Network.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, this will be Air Force’s season opener. The Falcons will travel to face Army on Nov. 7, the only other game on their schedule so far, but will add more after the Mountain West Conference reversed course and announced it will play a fall football schedule after all. That schedule will start on Oct. 24.
Only Air Force cadets will be admitted into Falcon Stadium, which has a capacity of nearly 47,000 fans, for this weekend’s game. Roommates will be seated in twos, and they will be required to be socially distanced and wear masks. No tailgating will be allowed.
“Maybe the noise level won’t be as loud, but I don’t expect the atmosphere at the game between the players to change at all,” Navy junior safety Kevin Brennan said.
Air Force coach Troy Calhoun said not having played a game before facing Navy, which won the 2019 Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy after defeating Air Force and Army, is not ideal.
“In fact, only three weeks ago, … we mentioned, ‘Wouldn’t it be good if we could find somebody on Sept. 26 to try to have a game under our belt?”’ Calhoun said. “Naturally, you want to play as much football as you can possibly play, but it is quite, quite different that way.
“Hopefully we’ll go 130 years until maybe it has to happen again, too.”
Navy will seek to ride the momentum it built after erasing a 24-point halftime deficit and winning at Tulane two weeks ago to avoid an 0-2 start.
Air Force is trying to replace several key pieces off a team that finished 11-2 last season, including quarterback Donald Hammond. The school announced in late July that Hammond “is no longer a cadet in good standing,” and Calhoun has not revealed who will spearhead the Falcons’ triple-option attack.
Both coaches are approaching 100 victories at their respective schools. Niumatalolo is 99-61 since taking over the Midshipmen in 2008, while Calhoun is in his 14th season and has led the Falcons to a 98-69 record.
Niumatalolo downplayed the milestone, as did Calhoun.
“I know at least here, since 2007, a coach has never, ever, ever won a game and never, ever played a snap,” said Calhoun (Air Force Class of 1989). “That’s not being evasive, as it is just truth. That’s the way we feel in our heart, too.”
Air Force, which will wear uniforms honoring the Tuskegee Airmen on Saturday, won its final eight games of last season. The Falcons hold the nation’s longest active winning streak and have not lost in nearly a year.
Their last setback came on Oct. 5.
Navy was their opponent that day.
“The world is not the same now,” Niumatalolo said.