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Jeff Monken: Army “could care less” about bowl game; focused on beating Navy

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Army will play Missouri in the Armed Forces Bowl, but the Black Knights are focused on beating Navy for the C.I.C. trophy.

NCAA Football: Army at Wisconsin Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

The Army Black Knights found out on Sunday that they would be playing Missouri in the Armed Forces Bowl on Dec. 22.

It’s a big accomplishment for the Black Knights, as they’ve gone bowling in five of the last six seasons. And last year, Army made a whole lot of noise when — with a 9-2 record — seemingly no bowl would have the Black Knights after several games were canceled due to teams opting out because of COVID-19. Eventually, the Liberty Bowl invited Army, where they played West Virginia hard before falling 24-21.

But this year is different. No bowl games were going to be wiped away. So, the Black Knights knew weeks ago — on Nov. 13 when they beat Bucknell for their sixth win of the season — that they were going bowling.

When Army discovered its opponent and bowl assignment on Sunday, there wasn’t much excitement among the players, according to head coach Jeff Monken. The Black Knights shrugged it off. Missouri doesn’t mean much to them and the bowl game is weeks away.

Right now, the focus is singular.

The aim is to beat Navy on Saturday.

“Our guys could care less about the bowl game,” Monken said during a Zoom call on Monday. “They knew. They all read it online. They all got a phone. They knew before they got to the team meeting yesterday. Really, it was just kind of matter of fact… They didn’t want to hear anything about it. They were ready to get on and get ready to prepare for Navy. There wasn’t any big celebration or jumping up and down or anything like that.

“There’s one game in the whole world right now, and that’s the one this Saturday. That’s all our guys really care about. It’s all I really care about.”

Indeed, for the Black Knights and Midshipmen, nothing gets bigger than the second weekend in December. Before the Heisman Trophy Winner is crowned, the Army-Navy game is typically the only FBS game played.

This season marks the 122nd edition of the Army-Navy game. After being played on West Point’s campus last year due to alterations brought on by the pandemic, the game returns to a neutral site. It’s back at the Meadowlands in East Rutherford, New Jersey for the first time since 2002.

This will be the eighth Army-Navy game for Monken, and he’s 4-3 in the contest. Famously, Monken’s 2016 team broke the Mids’ streak of 14 straight wins in Baltimore. That was the first of three consecutive wins for Army, then Malcolm Perry led Navy to a victory in 2019 in Philadelphia. Army won at home last season, shutting out Navy 15-0 amidst the fog. It was the first time since 1969 since Navy had been shut out in the annual clash of rivals.

While Navy has struggled this season, heading into the game with a 3-8 record, Monken still has the utmost respect for his colleague Ken Niumatalolo. He also believes the Mids are better than their record indicates.

“I think they’re playing their best football right now. They’ve played as well on offense these last few games as they played all year, and to battle teams like Cincinnati and SMU – ranked teams – and to beat UCF… We know what kind of program they have, how talented they are,” Monken said. “They’ve got a good football team. It may not have shown up as much in the record as it as in years past, but I know the program that Kenny’s built, the team that he has and we know their players. Like I said, we recruited a whole lot of them and they recruit a lot of ours.”

Aside from underwhelming losses to Marshall, Air Force and Notre Dame, the Mids have been able to score this season. They put up 34 points in a win over bowl-bound UCF and 20 points in a victory against bowl-eligible Tulsa. Navy has put up 35 or more points in each of its past two contests, a loss to East Carolina and a win over Temple.

“So, I think they got plenty of weapons to be able to beat us,” Monken said. “What we’re going to have to do is execute very well on defense and play our assignments and play well fundamentally, and tackle well and destroy blocks and all the things that it takes to win a game.”

Army’s defense has been sharp lately. Since giving up 70 points at home to a powerful Wake Forest offense, the Black Knights are holding opponents to an average of 14.2 points over their last four games.

It might seem on-paper like Army should be able to beat Navy handily, but Monken knows that the Black Knights will have to be at their very best to top their rival and claim another Commander-In-Chief’s Trophy.

Said Monken: “It’ll be the toughest game we’ve played all year.”