Air Force takes on Navy for prized trophy

Updated: October 3, 2003, 4:54 PM ET

ANNAPOLIS, Md. -- Air Force head coach Fisher DeBerry has made it clear that capturing the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy is the program's top priority.

DeBerry keeps the 2{-foot tall, 170-pound trophy prominently displayed inside the academy's new $30.3 million athletic facility. He looks forward to the team's annual trip to the White House.

"Our players realize and accept the fact they have a deep responsibility to those who came before to retain that trophy," DeBerry said ahead of Saturday's game against Navy (2-2) at Fed Ex Field. "It is always a highlight to receive that trophy from the President of the United States himself."

Air Force (5-0) has done a tremendous job of keeping the trophy. The Falcons had a seven-year stranglehold on the trophy snapped by Army in 1996, but have since captured six straight.

Navy has not held the three-sided trophy since 1981 and has been dominated by the Falcons, who lead the series 25-10. Air Force has won six straight and 19 of the last 21 games against Navy. The Falcons routed the Middies 48-7 last season.

Air Force quarterback Chance Harridge said before the season began that he "couldn't imagine suffering a loss" to Navy, a statement Navy quarterback Craig Candeto didn't quibble with.

"Why would Air Force respect us? We've given them no reason to respect us," Candeto said. "They are the proven program that has won games. There is nothing we can say or do until we beat them on the field."

Coach Paul Johnson said Navy has a long way to go before it can be considered the equal of Air Force.

"What we're trying to do is get better and catch up," Johnson said. "Air Force has done a better job with its program and been the benchmark (among the service academies). In all honesty, it has been a situation where Army and Navy haven't been very good. You wouldn't be very smart if you think the teams are equal in players when Air Force wins every year."

Yet DeBerry is working hard to convince his troops to be wary of Navy, which has not beaten Air Force since 1996. Navy showed its mettle by leading No. 20 Texas Christian at halftime before falling 17-3 on the road.

"Navy is a much-improved football team. They look a lot more athletic and are playing very hard," DeBerry said. "I think Paul Johnson has them believing they can be good."

Saturday's game brings together the top two rushing teams in the nation. Navy is ranked No. 1 with an average of 311 yards per game on the ground, just two yards more than Air Force.

Both teams employ option offenses directed by solid quarterbacks.

Harridge was headed to Mercer on a baseball scholarship before the opportunity to play football at Air Force arose. Candeto chose Navy because it was the only Division I school that offered him a chance to play both football and baseball.

Harridge leads Air Force in rushing with 292 yards despite drawing serious defensive attention. He has been giving the ball up more often to wingbacks Darnell Stephens and Anthony Butler, who have combined for 557 yards rushing.

"I think their slots have been productive. I think because of the year (Harridge) had last year, everybody is keying on him and he's not putting up the numbers," Johnson said. "But he's the straw that stirs the drink."

Candeto has rushed for 280 yards and three touchdowns while spreading the ball around. Fullback Kyle Eckel leads the team with 339 yards rushing while slot backs Eric Roberts and Tony Lane have contributed 215 and 203, respectively.

"Paul runs a great scheme that puts tremendous pressure on the defense," DeBerry said. "I think Candeto, like Chance, has grown and matured into an outstanding option quarterback."

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index