There is a simple story line to follow as Air Force travels to play Navy on Saturday.
The Midshipmen want the Commander In Chief Trophy back.
They owned it for seven straight seasons until 2010, when Air Force beat Navy and Army to take the trophy -- given to the winner of the competition among all three service academies. That 14-6 loss to the Falcons has stuck with the Midshipmen throughout the offseason, not only because it hurt to lose but because they felt they let down all the players who came before them.
"You feel like you dropped the ball, you let those guys down," Navy back Alexander Teich said. "In all my years of playing sports, that was the hardest loss I've ever had to take because of the magnitude of it."
The goal every year is to win the trophy, and that has been renewed for the Midshipmen this season. Coach Ken Niumatalolo wants to make sure his team remains focused on the game and not emotionally distracted. He hopes that the bye week his team just had will help, especially with the health of his team.
Niumatalolo hopes to have both starting linebackers Jarrod Shannon (shoulder) and Mason Graham (knee) back on the field. He says his team is in much better physical shape and mental shape, too, after a heartbreaking 24-21 loss to South Carolina a few weeks ago. Navy had the lead three different times on the No. 10 Gamecocks, but Marcus Lattimore wore the Midshipmen down and the offense could not make a play down the stretch.
"You're always down when you lose," Niumatalolo said. "But my son was on the sideline and he gave me an observation. He said, 'Dad, South Carolina played good and we went toe to toe with them.' I've had to take a step back as a coach and look at the big picture that we went to SEC country, played the No. 10 team at their place, and they played well. We couldn't ask for a better situation. We had the ball to end the game with 5 1/2 minutes left and two timeouts. For us and our offense, you couldn't ask for a better scenario. We could stay within who we are with that much time.
"We went down there, we took their best shot and I don't think our kids flinched. I'm very impressed by the mental toughness of our guys. We were crushed in that locker room. We were devastated. As I looked at our guys' eyes, they fully expected to win. I was pleased from the standpoint ... our guys have taken from that game when you play good teams, you have to play it to your best abilities, but mentally you have to be dialed in, too."
Air Force is coming into this game banged up as well. Four starters on defense are going to miss this game -- linebacker Patrick Hennessey (thumb), nose guard Ryan Gardner (knee), cornerback Chris Miller (leg), defensive end Zach Payne (knee) -- leaving what was a strength of the team with some inexperienced players. But Tim Jefferson has been even better on offense for the Falcons, who leads the nation in rushing with 412 yards a game.
Navy has a first-year starter in Kriss Proctor, but he has done a good job running the triple-option. "You can tell he's very comfortable executing the option part of it in what they do," Air Force coach Troy Calhoun said.
This game marks the first one on the road for Air Force. The Falcons have won three-straight service academy games dating back to 2009, the longest since Air Force had a 12-game streak from 1997-02. But Navy has won three straight at home against Air Force and is eager to keep that run going. A win would mean it has a leg up in the race for the CIC Trophy.
"Get the trophy back -- that's been a team goal," Teich said. "That's what we work toward and the opportunity to start that journey begins Saturday."