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October opening act: Air Force finally begins, hosts Navy

For the first time in school history, Air Force opens a season in October and by facing fellow service academy Navy.

Ask Navy, that’s advantage Air Force since the Falcons had weeks to prepare.

Ask Air Force, that’s advantage Navy since the Midshipmen have already played two games.

One thing both schools can agree on: It will be an opening leg of the annual Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy competition like no other Saturday, with only the Air Force cadets allowed into Falcon Stadium due to COVID-19 restrictions.

“It’s definitely a very emotional game, this first game,” Falcons senior linebacker Grant Donaldson said.

The Falcons weren't even sure if they would be taking the field this fall after the Mountain West postponed the season in August. Then, they learned they would play the two service academy games. Later, the league announced its resumption, with the intent to play eight games.

It's been a roller coaster of emotions for Air Force, which won eight straight to close out last season, including the Cheez-It Bowl.

This isn’t the same team, though. The Falcons have been hit by graduation and military turnbacks (an option a cadet has to leave the academy for up to two semesters). In addition, quarterback Donald Hammond III is currently a cadet not in good standing, meaning he can practice but can’t represent the school.

The Falcons defense appears to have been particularly hit hard by players opting for turnbacks (the exact figure isn't released due to the privacy codes). Not that Donaldson is giving it much thought.

“We’re here to compete regardless of who we have,” Donaldson said. “We’re going to be ready and prepared to go.”

With two games under their belt, the Midshipmen (1-1) are starting to find their rhythm. They lost 55-3 to BYU in the opener, then bounced back to win 27-24 at Tulane.

But this is always a different sort of test. Navy enters as the defending champion in the round-robin Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy competition between the service academies. Navy beat Air Force 34-25 at home last season and knocked off Army 31-7.

This competition is a big deal, which may have been why Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo voiced his feelings when the Midshipmen had a full slate of games, while the Falcons at the time had only the service academy contests on the docket.

“Once I vented and got that frustration out, it’s all about football,” Niumatalolo said. “They’re a good program, great coaches, great players."

But the Midshipmen really don’t know that much about this version of Air Force. The Falcons could be starting sophomore Haaziq Daniels at quarterback or maybe junior Warren Bryan. Both are listed on the depth chart.

Air Force coach Troy Calhoun was hoping to schedule a tune-up game last weekend, but it didn’t work out.

“Naturally, you want to play as much football as you can play,” Calhoun said.

MILESTONES IN SIGHT

Niumatalolo downplayed the fact he’s one win away from 100 for his Navy career.

“It’s never about me. I’m just a head coach,” he said.

A similar response from Calhoun, who is two wins away from 100 at Air Force.

“The coach has never, ever, ever won a game and has never ever played a snap,” Calhoun said. “That’s not being evasive as that’s the truth.”

RESPECT THAT OPTION

From one option team to another, Navy respects how Air Force runs its version.

“Very creative,” Niumatalolo said. “They come from the Fisher DeBerry option school, very varied in what they can do. They run every option known to man.”

FAN FRIENDLY

The only fans allowed into Falcon Stadium will be Air Force Academy cadets, who will be seated in pairs (roommates). They’ll also be socially distanced and wearing masks.

“If it’s just their cadets there, you can expect them to probably heckle us a lot,” Navy junior safety Kevin Brennan said. “Maybe the noise level won’t be as loud but don’t expect the atmosphere of the game between the players to change at all.”

TUSKEGEE AIRMEN TRIBUTE

Air Force will wear uniforms to honor the Tuskegee Airmen, a group of African-American pilots and ground crew from the U.S. Army Air Forces that fought in World War II. The jerseys are gray with black lettering. A custom nameplate on the jerseys will read Red Tails.

THE STATS

The Falcons lead the all-times series by a 30-22 count. The Midshipmen haven’t won at Falcon Stadium since a 28-21 overtime victory in 2012.

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