ESPN’s College GameDay has been to West Point once before, setting up shop there ahead of Army’s game vs. South Florida in 2003, back when the Black Knights were in Conference USA.
That was before Heisman Trophy winner Desmond Howard joined the network’s flagship college football show as an analyst, and the crew hasn’t been back since. That’ll change Saturday when GameDay broadcasts live from its seventh straight Army-Navy game.
Due to COVID-19, the game was moved to Michie Stadium and it’s the first time since 1943 that Army-Navy has been played on the Black Knights’ campus. The circumstances could be better, but Howard is still looking forward to experiencing U.S. Military Academy for the first time.
“It’s pretty cool. I’m excited about it,” Howard told Against All Enemies Friday, calling from his hotel near the Hudson River. “With what we do, you get to see some exciting and historic places.”
Since 1993, GameDay has traveled weekly in the fall to college campuses across the country, showcasing some of the best and most interesting college football contests on schedule. The crew has been to Columbus, Ohio and Tuscaloosa, Alabama to feature some of the sport’s perennial contenders and blue bloods countless times, but they’ve also traveled to Fargo, North Dakota, Harrisonburg, Virginia and Kalamazoo, Michigan. Last week, they were in Conway, South Carolina for a last-minute match-up between Coastal Carolina and BYU.
But none of those atmospheres really compare to GameDay’s show on the day of the Army-Navy game.
“You got the Midshipmen and the Cadets. What more could you really say? You understand whose presence you’re in,” Howard said. “When you draw that line, you have the Midshipmen on one side, the Cadets on the other side, and they’re in their uniforms — that sets the whole scene. Sometimes we’ve had some tanks and other types of military vehicles in the background... Just the whole feeling is completely different than being on a college campus with, you know, the quote-unquote typical college kids.”
Howard has seen some of college football’s famed rivalries, like the Iron Bowl, up-close in his work as a broadcaster. And of course, he played in the Ohio State vs. Michigan game as a Wolverine.
For him, Army-Navy is distinguished from the rest.
“This game has such a different meaning to it,” Howard said. “You know, we never got the President to the Ohio State-Michigan game — and that’s a big-ass rivalry to me. So, this one, Army-Navy, is very special.”
Saturday’s edition of the annual contest won’t look or sound quite the same as it has in previous years. Because of the pandemic, Michie Stadium is expected to be just a quarter-full with about 9,000 fans — mostly Cadets and Midshipmen. Last year’s game in Philadelphia drew more than 68,000 fans.
GameDay has been altered this year too. Typically in years past, there’s a large crowd of college students surrounding the set on Saturday mornings, many of them waving signs with witty messages. This year — not so fast, my friend.
And the man who has made those five words into one of his famous catchphrases, coach Lee Corso, has been appearing on the show remotely from his home.
“This season has been interesting. It’s been different,” Howard said. “But it’s been fun. We’ve been able to bob and weave, and adapt and adjust, and still put out a pretty good product.”
The pandemic has also altered the sport’s schedule and made the College Football Playoff picture an even bigger debate. The topic this year: Should Ohio State get in having played just six games?
Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney doesn’t think so. But Howard, the former Michigan receiver, thinks the Buckeyes’ resume is strong enough.
“I can’t really argue with the top four as they are right now. Obviously, one, two and three has solidified their spots. No one was arguing about those three. The issue was with Ohio State because they just didn’t look good in their game before the Michigan State game — the Indiana game,” Howard said. “But then after that, Ohio State, without their head coach, goes on the road, shorthanded... and opens up a 12-pack of whoop-ass on Michigan State.
“So, it’s hard to argue against that, once you see that type of performance. Should Florida be up there? They’ll get a chance to make their own case.”
But enough about the playoff. On Saturday, Army-Navy has the center stage.
The Black Knights (7-2) are favored by about a touchdown. They haven’t played since Nov. 21 — a 28-27 victory over Georgia Southern — and have had plenty of time to prepare for the Midshipmen.
Jeff Monken’s side enters the game with the third-best rushing attack in the nation, averaging 296.3 yards on the ground per-game. Army’s defense has also been solid, ranking sixth in red-zone defense (allowing opponents to score just 68.2% of the time) and are tied for fourth in defensive touchdowns with three.
“Army has been real consistent, just doing what Army does — running the ball and eating up the clock, controlling the time of possession,” Howard said. “They are who they are.”
While Navy (3-6) has stumbled mightily at times this season — getting blown out by BYU and Air Force, and allowing 51 points to SMU — their defense has been much improved lately. In their last two games, the Mids have held Memphis and No. 24 Tulsa to a combined 29 points. Memphis and Tulsa both average more than 400 yards and 27 points per-game.
“I think what really affected Navy early in the season was the absence of Malcolm Perry. He was just a great player for them. When you have to replace a guy like that, it takes a minute for your offense to get going,” Howard said. “Navy just didn’t look good (against BYU). But I believe Navy has bounced back and they look much better now.”
Having played tailback in a wishbone system in high school for a coach who was a World War II veteran, Howard has long been a fan of Service Academy football and says he “would’ve been fantastic in the triple-option.”
But does he like Army or Navy to win on Saturday? Unlike Corso — who coached at Navy and has tabbed the Mids to win in each of the six previous seasons — Howard wouldn’t hint to his pick.
Said Howard: “You’ve got to tune in tomorrow for that one.”