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December 30, 2009

Air Force, Navy becoming postseason fixtures

MORE: Armed Forces Bowl preview | Texas Bowl preview | Bowl schedule/results

As coach at Air Force, Troy Calhoun knows his job is different than coaches at almost every other FBS school.

Calhoun's players don't have visions of million-dollar NFL contracts. Rather, Air Force players, for the most part, will be commissioned as officers upon graduation following a rigorous and demanding stay at the Academy. There are myriad duties beyond schoolwork and football. But that hasn't stopped Calhoun from thriving at Air Force.

"It takes a special person to come here to the Air Force Academy and play," Calhoun said. "There will be hurdles. But we can and will experience winning seasons at the Academy."

Mission accomplished this season. Air Force (7-5) meets Houston (10-3) in Thursday's Armed Forces Bowl in Fort Worth, Texas. It's the third bowl in a row for Calhoun and the Falcons.

Navy is the other service academy playing in the postseason. It also has been the bellwether academy this decade, winning the past seven Commander-in-Chief Trophies. The Midshipmen (9-4) meet Missouri (8-4) in Thursday's Texas Bowl in Houston. It will be Navy's seventh bowl in a row and its second since Ken Niumatalolo took over as coach after Paul Johnson left to lead Georgia Tech.

As with Calhoun, Niumatalolo knows his job goes beyond drilling his players on how to block and tackle.

"Well, there's a great responsibility in coaching here," Niumatalolo said. "I'm a football coach, but I also understand the bigger picture. These young men, when they graduate here, they're going to go serve our country. So when you go into a home, you talk of academics, you talk of the things that you can offer to a young man and their family.

"Ultimately it comes down to these young men will be in harm's way and they'll be protecting our country."

The two academies get it done with ground-pounding triple-option attacks that require discipline and attention to detail, traits their students possess in large quantities.

Air Force's rushing offense ranks third in the nation (273.6 yards per game), while Navy ranks fourth (272.5 ypg). Passing the ball? That's an afterthought. But Air Force and Navy have used strong defense to propel them to success this season. The Falcons rank 10th in the country in total defense (284.8 ypg), the program's best showing since 1966, and lead the nation in pass defense. Navy's defense ranks 36th in total defense (333.6 ypg) and 20th in scoring defense (19.9 ppg). Each program also has excelled in turnover margin, with Air Force ranking third in the nation and Navy 19th.

"Each game, we found different ways to earn a win and get a bowl bid," Calhoun said. "The things I felt were strengths were turnover margin and we ran the ball pretty well. For the most part, we had some stretches where we played some really good defense. And we were pretty solid in the kicking game."

Where's Army?

Army remains on the outside looking in when it comes to the postseason. The Black Knights haven't been to a bowl since 1996, when they lost to Auburn in the Independence Bowl. Army hasn't won a postseason game since toppling Illinois in the 1985 Peach Bowl.

Navy and Air Force are making their seventh bowl appearances since Army's last postseason trip in 1996.

But in his first season at West Point, Rich Ellerson offered hope in leading Army to a 5-7 record behind the same triple-option offense that Navy and Air Force use so effectively. True freshman quarterback Trent Steelman did a nice job running the offense this season and should be even better as a sophomore. As Ellerson and his staff recruit more players suitable for Army's offense, it may not be long until all three service academies are in the postseason in the same season.

Actually, it almost happened this season. Had Army beaten Navy in the regular-season finale, the Black Knights would've nailed down a spot in the EagleBank Bowl opposite Temple. Army's loss to the Midshipmen opened a spot for UCLA in the bowl.

Despite all those positives, both are underdogs in their bowls.

"Well, we kind of know who we are," Niumatalolo said. "We know we're never going to win the 'get off the bus' contest, and our kids understand that. They understand that we're not going to be as big as anybody, but I think for us, the team concept, being unselfish, is the only way we survive.

"Our guys, to their credit, have bought into a team concept, which allows us to survive on this level. Because, like I said, physically, one-on-one, we can't match up with anybody. But hopefully, collectively as a group, we can have a chance to compete."

As an independent, Navy is able to build its own schedule, unencumbered by playing mandatory conference games. Conversely, Air Force is in the Mountain West, which is the nation's best non-Big Six league.

"There are challenges," Calhoun said. "Certainly one is when you play in a major conference like we do. There will be hurdles. There are some differences that are there [compared to Navy]. TCU, BYU, Utah are very talented, as are the others [in the MWC]. It's a great conference. You play your eight conference games and two service academy games, you have 10 games right there that will be tough. But when you go to Air Force, there's nothing easy about it."

Navy played a representative schedule this season against the likes of Ohio State, Pittsburgh, Wake Forest and Notre Dame.

The bowl opponents pose contrasts in styles to the service academy schools, as Houston and Missouri like to pass. Both also have more size, speed and depth than Air Force or Navy.

Behind quarterback Case Keenum, Houston has the nation's No. 1 offense (581.2 ypg). Missouri's offense ranks 32nd in the nation (417.2 ypg), and features one of the country's most promising young quarterbacks in sophomore Blaine Gabbert.

"They have a system, they've seen every blitz thrown at them," Niumatalolo said. "There's nothing you can do from a blitz standpoint that's going to rattle them. We know we're going to have our work cut out for us just kind of matching up with them."

That's nothing new for the academies, though.

MORE: Armed Forces Bowl preview | Texas Bowl preview | Bowl schedule/results

Tom Dienhart is a national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dienhart@yahoo-inc.com.

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