Elijah Riley’s Army Black Knights descend upon MetLife Stadium on Saturday
A defensively sound football team playing at MetLife Stadium sounds too good to be true for the beleaguered locals, but it becomes a brief reality on Saturday afternoon.
The 122nd edition of the Army-Navy game will be staged in East Rutherford over the weekend (3 p.m. ET, CBS), decided in the New York City area in observation of the 20th anniversary of September 11, 2001’s tragic events. It will be held away from its usual haunt of Philadelphia (the midway point between West Point and Annapolis) for the second straight season, as last year’s edition was held at Michie Stadium due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
West Point’s Black Knights (8-3) certainly hope the affair turns out better than their fourth and last trip to the Meadowlands to battle the Midshipmen. A 2002 meeting at Giants Stadium yielded a 58-12 Navy win and served as the first of 14 straight victories in the annual service academy get-together.
Army, however, has begun to flip the script, winning four of the past five meetings. That includes a 15-0 shutout effort in a de facto home game brought about by the pandemic. Army has allowed an average of 10 points in those wins.
Service requirements make it rare for an Army-Navy game to be staged in the stomping grounds of a former participant, but the MetLife locale offers such an opportunity. One of its NFL tenants, the New York Jets, has enlisted former safety Elijah Riley to step in at safety in the wake of injuries to presumed starters Marcus Maye and Lamarcus Joyner.
In those duties, Riley has become a consistent silver lining for the meandering Jets.
The Port Jefferson, N.Y. native ironically began his career with the Philadelphia Eagles before joining Gang Green in November. He’s the first West Point alum to play a regular season game for the Jets franchise since the late Bob Mischak, a Newark-born blocker who appeared on the New York Titans’ offensive line for three seasons (1960-62).
Playing for the Jets is a dream come true for Riley, who grew up adoring the defensive antics of Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie. But he’ll never forget how West Point set him up for success on his current path, one that has him gunning for the brightest opportunity available, no matter how dire the situation may appear.
“I go into any job fighting for the starting position. I come to compete. Once I get the opportunity, it’s full speed ahead, head down, and get to work,” Riley said on Dec. 1, per notes from the Jets.
“The institution prepares you to be the best version of yourself in all capacities: academically, militarily, as a leader, and athletically. Everybody is expected to be some semblance of an athlete. They throw all types of challenges at you from day zero. You’ve got to be able to react to situations you don’t expect. It was a long four years, but I’d do it all over again.”
— Robby Sabo (@RobbySabo) December 4, 2021
It’s thus appropriate that Army comes into East Rutherford with a hankering for strong defense. The Black Knights rank 16th amongst FBS squads as a unit (323.5 yards per game) and each of the team’s four captains hails from the defensive side of the ball. Seniors Nolan Cockrill, Cedrick Cunningham, and Arik Smith lead the way and they’re joined by junior Marquel Broughton, who picks up where Riley left off in the secondary.
Riley was part of a Black Knight defensive turnaround that has placed West Point in a period of gridiron prosperity.
When Riley arrived in 2016, Army was burdened with not only the dubious 14-game losing streak against the Midshipmen but a stretch of earning only a single winning season over a two-decade span. But, along with fellow current NFLers Cole Christiansen (LA Chargers) and Jon Rhattigan (Seattle), Riley shifted the perception of Army football to the tune of accomplishments like the first pair of consecutive 10-win seasons in program history.
A team captain in his own right, Riley earned placement on several national award watchlists. Riley officially introduced himself to the grand stage of December football by earning two interceptions as a freshman in the 2016 Heart of Dallas Bowl victory over North Texas. That game has started a streak of five postseason appearances over the last six seasons for Army, one that’s set to continue when they battle Missouri in the Armed Forces Bowl on Dec. 22.
Riley’s efforts and his role in the Black Knights’ resurgence have not been forgotten.
Broughton, a rare underclassman captain in the West Point realm, spoke about the impact Riley had on him during the lead-up to the Navy game last week, one that has lasted far beyond the single season they spent together at Michie Stadium.
“He was a perfectionist. When he didn’t do something right, there was something that he would do to correct that,” Broughton said of his former teammate, whom he referred to as “Eli”. “I learned how to really perfect my game. Obviously, my game is not perfect now, but continuing to perfect your game no matter what, no matter what you accomplish, you can always be better. That’s what I learned from Eli.”
Army head coach Jeff Monken indirectly claimed that Riley’s work with his fellow secondary defender was paying off.
“They’ve done a great job. It’s interesting that we’ve got four defensive captains, all four are good players, they’re all really good leaders. They’re all different they have their own personality,” Monken said of his decision to ride with four defensive leaders. “Marquel was really special. He’s got a spirit about him. I think everybody on our team really is attracted to his spirit and his energy. He compels people to do their best brings the best out of guys.”
Broughton, a Georgia native, sits second on the team with 51 tackles and is one of three Black Knights to earn at least two interceptions this season.
In spite of all he’s accomplished, the more things change for Riley, rising from West Point standout to NFL starter, the more they stay the same: he’ll once again spend the second weekend in December preventing a gold-helmeted team from getting into the end zone.
Less than 24 hours after the service academy showdown, Riley and Jets (3-9) will battle the New Orleans Saints in an interconference tilt (1 p.m. ET, CBS).
Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags