Army-Navy is classic football

Published 6:00 am Thursday, December 5, 2002

On Saturday morning, a capacity crowd of 80,242 will fill GiantsStadium in East Rutherford, N.J. The 11 a.m. kickoff for theArmy-Navy game will be cold as ice but Brookhaven’s Maurio Smithwill make the best of it. A starter at safety for the BlackKnights, Smith will be playing in his final Army-Navy contest.

“It’s the biggest game I’ve ever played in,” said Smith, duringa Wednesday afternoon telephone conversation from his dormitoryroom in West Point, N.Y. “Anybody can win because there are so manyemotions. It’s the last game for all the seniors.”

Army’s seniors have battled the highs and lows this season.Their only win in 11 games came three weeks ago at Tulane. Smith, afree safety, made a victory-saving interception in the closingminutes at Army’s 15-yard line as his parents, Semmie and KathleenSmith, proudly watched their son from the Superdome stands.

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The Knights have been slowed by a rash of injuries this season.When their starting quarterback got hurt, a true freshman wasforced to take the controls and learn the hard way. It was aturnover experience.

“We have a lot of sophomores starting,” said Smith. “The biggestone is quarterback.”

Smith (5-9, 177) has enjoyed his five years at West Point,located on the banks of the Hudson River. Army’s home turf, MichieStadium, is recognized as one of the most picturesque stadiums inthe nation.

Army, under the direction of third-year head coach Todd Berry,has struggled during its Conference USA membership. Opponents,unfettered by tough academic requirements, are usually bigger,quicker, faster and stronger. Berry is 5-28 overall but he managedto beat Navy 26-17 last year in a 3-8 campaign as the Knightsclaimed wins over C-USA rivals Houston and Tulane.

Like the other seniors, Smith said he is disappointed by thewon-lost record. “It’s not my best season. I broke my hand in theHouston game. I’ve been having some hamstring problems thisweek.”

Certainly, cold, freezing weather is not conducive to healthyhamstrings. Smith believes he’ll be ready for Saturday’s game. Thisis the big one.

Army holds a 48-41-7 advantage in the ancient rivalry. TheKnights have captured 11 of the last 16 meetings (and 7 of 10). Theseries dates back to 1890.

Army and Navy, both 1-10, have two common opponents this fall inAir Force and Tulane. Both teams lost to Air Force (Navy 48-7 andArmy 49-30) while Tulane beat Navy 51-30 and lost to Army 14-10.That gives the Falcons the Commander in Chief’s Trophy for a sixthconsecutive year.

“I thought Air Force was pretty good,” said Smith. “Theirquarterback was their major player.”

Like Army, the Midshipmen have endured more lows than highs.”Navy has been having a similar season to us,” said Smith. “Theyturn the ball over a lot on special teams. When they execute onoffense (wishbone) they do really well.”

Smith and freshman Jonathan Lewis of Columbus are the only Armyfootball players from Mississippi. Lewis is a startingcornerback.

Smith has a future in artillery when he graduates as a secondlieutenant in June. For six months he will serve as a graduateassistant coach at West Point’s preparatory school. “We would liketo get some more players from Mississippi,” said Smith.

For sure, the entire country has a rooting interest in thisgame. Emotion and tradition run deep.

After Saturday’s showdown the two squads will come together onthe field, stand at attention and sing alma maters. Facing thestudent body of the losing team first, either the Brigade ofMidshipmen of Navy or the Crops of Cadets at Army. Then they turnand join the student body of the winning team and sing their almamater.

So, throw out the record books and enjoy the game. Really, thisis a bowl game for both teams. Make sure to wear your insulatedunderwear.

The Conerly Trophy will be awarded tonight during a ceremony atthe Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame Museum on Lakeland Drive inJackson. Former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Danny White will makethe presentation which is sponsored by Cellular South.

Finalists are linebacker Alex Davis of Southern Miss andquarterbacks Robert Kent of Jackson State and Eli Manning of OleMiss. Votes are submitted by members of the media.

Manning took home the trophy last year as a sophomore.