Photo: James Nachtigal
Army’s players say preparing to face Air Force has been the same this year as for any other showdown in the coveted Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy round-robin series that includes Navy.
Yes, it’s true this year the Black Knights are 6-2 entering Saturday's game against the Falcons (4-4) in Colorado Springs. They're in their most legitimate position to win the CIC in two decades, but the players assure they have competed with equal intensity in the past games, including 2015 despite Army's 2-6 record on the way to a 2-10 finish.
Yet Army inside linebacker James Nachtigal admits this year is different. After a bye week following a win over Temple, weekend football anticipation is again ramping up.
The Black Knights can feel it from the outside if not admit it on the inside. The players can tell by the energy bubbling over on the storied West Point campus from the Corps of Cadets – the student body in civilian terms.
“Definitely the Corps is more riled up,” said Nachtigal, the team’s leading tackler. “There was the Wednesday bonfire; there’s more hype behind this game. It’s a different feeling when we’re playing one of the academies.”
Army has already met one goal, having accepted a bid to the Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Military Bowl in Forth Worth, Tx, with the Black Knights' win over Temple two weeks ago. But the CIC, which Army hasn't won since 1996, is the biggest goal in service academy football. Air Force can't win the CIC after losing last month to Navy.
The last time the Black Knights beat Air Force to go into the Army-Navy game with a chance to claim the CIC was in 2012. But that was a 1-7 Army team on its way to a 2-10 record following a 17-13 loss to Navy.
“We have a general feeling of more confidence,” Nachtigal said of the four-game winning streak, “but we always have to go into games with a mentality we’re going to win. We’re having a good season and feel confident in the way we’re preparing for this game.”
Army’s improvement to compete on better footing with Air Force and Navy has been aided by improved play at quarterback. Army didn’t measure up as well in the past as it has with Ahmad Bradshaw. The Black Knights are second in the nation in rushing offense with 362.1 yards a game. Navy is first at 376.1 and Air Force third at 350.4. Bradshaw has led Army to a 9-2 record since last year finished with a three-game winning streak and an 8-5 record.
But the offensive production would go for naught if the defense didn’t continue to play at the level it has in the past. That’s where Nachtigal has played a major role in the 2017 defense that had to replace two talented inside linebackers lost to graduation, Jeremy Timpf and Andrew King.
The 6-foot, 230-pound junior from Fort Atkinson, Wis., switched from backup outside linebacker last fall to inside backer in spring drills. Defensive coordinator Jay Bateman suggested the move and Nachtigal readily accepted. He had played the position at the Army prep school in 2014 before his admission to West Point as a freshman in 2015.
“It was a big change, but I think playing in the middle is a little more fun,” he said. “It took me awhile to get used to the role, but coach Bateman and coach Corliss (Kevin, inside linebacker coach) have helped me a lot. There are a lot more reads, but I’ve made progress.”
Look at his tackles for the evidence. His totals were in single digits early in the season, but in the four-game winning streak over UTEP, Rice, Eastern Michigan and Temple he’s tackle numbers are 11, 7, 13 and 13. He leads the team with 63 tackles – 36 solo, 27 assisted.
He shrugs off the numbers, crediting experience and teaching from his coaches.
“It’s an accomplishment, but the way the defense is run I’m in a position I have to make a lot of tackles,” Nachtigal said. “I flow to the ball and get it, hopefully.”
Air Force is a big game that can set up an even bigger showdown against Navy if the Knights beat Air Force. It’s the type experience Nachtigal wanted while growing up a college football fan.
He just didn’t know it would be at Army. He knew about the football team but not much else about West Point until assistant coach Tucker Waugh showed up on his high school campus.
“One day my high school coach said a guy from Army wanted to talk to me,” Nachtigal said. “I thought he meant the actual Army. I didn’t know what my coach was getting me into, but I said, ‘Whatever.’ But I met with him.
“Coach Waugh introduced me to what West Point is about. We had a good relationship, and I went on some visits. By the time I made my official visit, I had talked it over with my parents and realized it’s a great opportunity at a great school. It’s hard to pass up something like that.”
His place in the CIC rivalry started with trusting and listening to his high school coach. It’s not unlike his switch to inside linebacker. He trusted his Army coaches and now finds himself in the middle of a 6-2 season with big goals remaining in front of the Black Knights.
Follow Tom Shanahan’s stories on Twitter @shanny4055.