Duke Review: Baking Up Something Sweet

Laugh or cringe if you want, but Rich Ellerson must have been a pastry chef in his previous life. Army thrashed Duke on Saturday and took a major step forward as a program by churning out sweetcakes in a victory that was as easy as pie.

The words are as irresistible as the tastes they provide on a Sunday morning filled with satisfaction: First came the turnovers for Army against the Blue Devils of Durham, North Carolina. Then, after those bakery products emerged from the oven, Ellerson whipped up a batch of Maples-Barr touchdowns. No, Army didn't serve up a donut – Duke didn't get shut out – but the aroma permeating the locker room after this 35-21 was decidedly sweet. There's a lot of heavy lifting yet to be done over the next two months, but it's fair to say that for the first time in quite a while, there is legitimate reason to be optimistic about the trajectory of West Point football.

There was nothing in Saturday's Devil-dusting at Wallace Wade Stadium that Ellerson would want to change. There was nothing the Black Knights could have regretted about their performance, nothing they'd look back on with concern. This, folks, was a template for every Army football game, a frame-it-in-the-Louvre exhibit of how the Brave Old Army Team wants to play each and every Saturday. This is the zenith of the 16-game-old Ellerson era, and now the challenge is simply to sustain this level of play on a weekly basis.

One must hasten to say that this was a Murphy's Law afternoon for Duke, which made catastrophic mistakes in the game's opening minutes. Not all teams are going to commit five turnovers and wilt the way Duke did on Saturday. Nevertheless, Army still has its perfect pigskin portrait, a model for how to attack opponents for the rest of this season.

It's worth noting that dropped interceptions (and their cousin, bobbled fumbles) are a big problem throughout the United States. While Army was drubbing Duke on Saturday, Arkansas and Alabama traded dropped interceptions. Notre Dame failed to pick off Stanford in the end zone. Virginia Tech dropped a pick-six at Boston College. Securing interceptions is hardly an automatic in this sport, so it's a credit to the Black Knights that they were immediately able to pounce when Duke quarterback Sean Renfree struggled.

Stephen Anderson and Donnie Dixon read Renfree like a cookbook (a pastry cookbook, of course) in the first quarter of this tilt on Tobacco Road, and when given the chance to put their team on the doorstep of the goal line, they didn't slip up. Anderson and Dixon successfully consumed the turnovers Renfree threw in their direction, and as a result, the Black Knights were able to post a 14-0 lead without having to drive the length of the field. Army – given its lack of imposing size up front – will always need to generate points without having to drive the ball 80 yards in 12 plays, so when Anderson and Dixon tucked away a pair of picks in the opening stanza, the visitors from West Point gave themselves a chance to produce this ideal blueprint against the Blue Devils.

The rest of the afternoon flowed from those high-impact (and very delicious) turnovers.

Army – ideally equipped for the task of front-running – then began to lean on Duke when in possession of the ball. The Black Knights ground up 40 minutes of clock time (39:57 to be precise) and, as a result, put that much more pressure on a Duke team that clearly forced the issue on its second-half possessions. This is exactly how Army wants to unnerve its opponents: Get a lead, establish the triple option, and then convey the message to the opposing sideline that it's going to be very hard to turn the tide once you fall behind. Duke clearly felt this in-game pressure, and that's a big reason why Saturday turned out so well for Team Ellerson.

The other aspect of this game which was so scrumptiously satisfying is also connected to this notion of in-game pressure. Duke became so focused on taking away the triple option that, for one of the rare times in the Ellerson era, the passing game opened up and hit huge plays downfield. As everyone in the world of service-academy football knows, Navy has buttered its bread the past several years not only because of its triple-option proficiency, but also because of its ability to "break the bone," so to speak, and hit a home-run pass play when the defense is locked into taking away the run. This talent has not been displayed so much at Army, and that's another reason why this game truly represents a gold standard to which the Black Knights must constantly aspire.

Indeed, after the raft of Duke turnovers filled Army's stomach with comfort food, the Black Knights – maintaining a 21-7 third-quarter lead – were able to feast even more at the bakery counter, choosing some Maples-flavored treats for their enjoyment. With Duke focused on Army's ground game to an almost trance-like extent, Black Knight quarterback Trent Steelman hit Raymond Maples for a 34-yard touchdown pass on a play-action fake. Six minutes later, he connected with Austin Barr on a 31-yard strike in much the same manner. Army opponents haven't had to game plan for the pass over the past few years, certainly not to the extent that teams must gear up for the passing game Ricky Dobbs offers over in Annapolis. Now, that might change, and the results could be so substantially beneficial for an offense that did not give away the ball even one time against Duke.

Steelman is becoming better as a decision maker and as a game manager – that much is clear after his turnover-free performance in the Carolinas. Army converted 8-of-17 third downs but made its one fourth-down conversion, essentially turning that 8-of-17 stat into a 9-of-18 mark, a fabulous 50-percenet success rate. The Black Knights also committed just one penalty in what was by far their cleanest offensive stat sheet in Ellerson's tenure, which is not yet at the halfway point of season number two.

The crowning aspect of this first-rate performance is that Ellerson – the man orchestrating the turnaround (but a turnaround that needs to be cemented and affirmed in future weeks) – is as enthusiastic about these developments as his players are. Look at what the man in charge said after this game went final:

"Our guys are getting more comfortable in this role. They're getting more comfortable with this expectation that this is what the scoreboard is supposed to look like. That's a powerful thing, learning how to win, and we're starting to do that."

There isn't much else to be said after a glowing review like that. Time to go back to the oven and bake up more delectable delights such as this one. Turnovers, Maples-Barr touchdowns, the works.

Let's just hope the Brave Old Army Team doesn't fritter away the confidence and momentum generated by this comprehensive domination of an ACC opponent on the road. This performance was and is too good to be followed by major setbacks in the weeks to come.

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