Coast Guard-Merchant Marine: Pageantry, patriotism ... football
New London — It's the time of the year Coast Guard Academy football coach Bill George starts telling reporters things are "off the record" a little more. Big game coming up. Can't be too careful.
The Bears will play rival Merchant Marine at noon Saturday for the Secretaries' Cup, surrounded by all the pageantry of Army-Navy only on a smaller scale. Both academies' corps of cadets will be at Cadet Memorial Field, cheering, jeering. And a broadcast team from ESPN will have its cameras rolling to livestream the game on ESPN3.
Now, about the football game.
Merchant Marine (4-4, 3-3) will bring its high-powered triple-option attack — the Mariners gained 707 yards offense last week in a 62-27 victory over Catholic — to play against Coast Guard (3-6, 1-5) in what is being billed as an advance sellout. The Bears, who lost last week to WPI (44-16), would seem like the underdog except that traditionally this is a game where anything can happen, precipitated by revelry and emotion.
"We have to get first downs and we have to stop their quarterback," George was saying earlier this week. "And we cannot give up returns, special teams yardage. Those three things.
"Their quarterback (Brice Moore, 104 yards, 2 TDs last week) is a tough kid. He takes hits and keeps coming back. He's a tough kid they rally around. We have to stop the best player in the league and that's their quarterback."
A New England Women's and Men's Athletic Conference matchup, it will be the final college football game for Coast Guard senior captains Cody Bain and Ryan Robertson, as well as the other 12 seniors on the roster. That will contribute to the emotional piece.
"Surreal," said Bain, a former wide receiver turned running back. "All week I've been thinking, 'This is my last Monday practice. This is my last Tuesday practice.' We just need everyone on the field doing their job, staying focused, not getting down. ... We always do. We always fight. We play well in front of the corps. It's going to be a good game."
"For us, we know we have to play the triple option," junior defensive tackle Tommy Jones said. "Defensively, we have to have no mental miscues; if you make that one miscue, that leads to that one big play that could change the game."
Merchant Marine won last year's game 31-27, while Coast Guard's last victory (42-31) came in 2014 on the coat tails of three second-half touchdown passes by then-sophomore quarterback Derek Victory.
Other highlights: In 1996, Coast Guard defeated Merchant Marine 23-13 in Kings Point, N.Y., on the final day of the regular season, earning the Bears their first of two straight NCAA Division III tournament bids.
From 2009-13, the teams played five straight games decided by seven points or fewer, including 33-27 Merchant Marine win in double-overtime in 2009 and the Bears' 10-8 victory the next season in New London, in which Coast Guard's Pat Bennett returned the opening kickoff 82 yards for a touchdown.
Coast Guard will wear a newly designed adidas uniform for the occasion, sporting red, white and blue for the Veterans Day matchup instead of the traditional blue and orange. On the back of the new jerseys, where the players' names would normally be, the Coast Guard motto "Semper Paratus" is emblazened, meaning "Always Ready."
"It's a great way to cap off 15 years of football," Bain said. "This is it."
"A home football game against a rival ... I'm happy to share this opportunity with my closest friends," said Robertson, a defensive back, who will not play due to injury but will dress. "Everyone's ready. Everyone knows this is the week to step it up."
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