Leaning On Past Relationships Lands Navy-LA Tech Matchup

By Troy Phillips

Relationships pay, especially in the bowl business. If the Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl can’t get its hands on a team, it has a knack for finding another good one.

No Big 12? No problem.

The bowl again dipped into the atlarge pool for its 14th year, this time pairing Louisiana Tech (8-5, 6-2 Conference USA) against Navy (9-4, 7-1 American Athletic) on Dec. 23 at TCU’s Amon G. Carter Stadium. Kickoff is set for 3:30 p.m. CT.

Navy is back for a second Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl after raising in 2013 the bowl’s regal (and heavy) trophy forged from battle-worn armament. The Midshipmen defeated Middle Tennessee that year and, while still an independent, had earlier agreed to return to Fort Worth in 2016.

Navy joined the American a year later, and this Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl marks the end of the academy’s pre-arranged bowl agreements.

“They made sure to honor that agreement,” Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl executive director Brant Ringler said. “That was very special to us in our relationship. They showed a continued commitment to our game.”

All six of the Big 12’s bowl-eligible teams were snapped up before the Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl picked seventh this year. In 2014, Louisiana Tech brought along most of the 31,300 fans at the Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas Bowl, which operates alongside the Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl in the ESPN Events bowl stable.

Again, relationships.

“We wanted to make sure the matchup had teams with similar won-loss records and felt like a 5-7 was really just too far away to make that happen with one of the APR teams,” Ringler said. “It made quite a bit of sense to target Louisiana Tech. We had them in our bowl in Dallas, and they have great regional support.”

Overall, it was a good get for the Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl. Navy and Louisiana Tech both advanced to their league championship games. Navy, until falling to Temple in the AAC title game, was in New Year’s Six (Cotton) bowl conversation. The Midshipmen don’t mess around when it comes to ticket sales; they’ve run out their allotment in at least 12 previous bowls.

Louisiana Tech reports more than 30,000 alumni in Shreveport, Dallas-Fort Worth, and Houston combined.

In the ground-versus-air matchup, triple-option Navy and its merciless rushing attack will face a Tech passing game that saw senior quarterback Ryan Higgins throw for 4,200 yards. Higgins’ top triad of targets is collectively scary, with Trent Taylor (124 catches, 1,570 yards), Carlos Henderson (72-1,406) and Jarred Craft (41-339).

“It’s going to be a tough challenge for us,” said Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo, whose team is down to its No. 3 quarterback (Zach Abbey) after an ankle injury ended Will Worth’s brilliant season early against Temple.

Worth (8-3 as a starter) replaced Tago Smith in Navy’s first game this season against Fordham after Smith suffered a torn ACL. Navy also must reload at running back after Toneo Gulley and Darryl Bonner were both lost to injuries against Temple. It’s a stiffer challenge in a conventional offense, but the triple-option requires backfield depth to go anywhere.

With new personnel, it remains to be seen if the Midshipmen – who played eight consecutive weeks and didn’t get break until after December 10 (vs. Army) – throw in any new wrinkles.

“They’re very disciplined, very physical,” Louisiana Tech coach Skip Holtz said. “It’s always been one of the things on my bucket list to be able to attend the Army-Navy game, the tradition and history that goes with it. Obviously, they have a great program. All the bowls (21) they’ve been to, the success they’ve had.”

Louisiana Tech joins a list of past at-large Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl selections that includes Boise State, California (twice), Army, Pittsburgh and Marshall. Kansas (2005) remains the only Big 12 team to make an appearance.

Eight of the 14 Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowls have included one of the three service academies. It’s the only bowl to land all three. Army will face North Texas on Dec. 27 at the Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas Bowl as an at-large team.

“That’s part of the niche of our bowl game,” Ringler said. “We make sure we do our best to have an academy. We’ve been fortunate. This makes eight of the last ten years.”

The bowl honors the nation’s active-duty, retired and wounded servicemen and women in a can’t miss, spareno-expense tribute. A national anthem flyover, skydivers, interactive military hardware/vehicles/aircraft fan areas, branch tributes, military family reunions and activation ceremonies are tradition now.

New this year: Renowned AC/DC tribute band Back in Black with the post-game concert. For Those About to Rock...

It all lines up to be another big Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl salute, with Navy and La-Tech the main course. Another win-win for bowl relations.

 

Troy Phillips is a Fort Worth-based freelance writer and former reporter and copy editor for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. He has covered nine of the past ten Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowls.