Tulane Review: Steelman and the Men Of Steel

The vast sea of empty seats inside the Louisiana Superdome might have made Saturday afternoon's game seem like a stroll in a quiet park for the Army Black Knights, but the calculus of football doesn't really change in one respect: Players still need to cultivate the mental capacities that lead to peak performances.

One year after a terrible loss to Tulane, an evidently maturing team showed how far it's come in the span of 12 months.

When Army last saw coach Bob Toledo's Green Wave on the gridiron, the Black Knights were just beginning to get used to the Rich Ellerson way of doing business. Army was a program in transition and a team in search of an identity. The triple-option was implemented and it enjoyed moments of fleeting success in 2009, but that success was never sustained for very long. When the Brave Old Army Team hosted Tulane on Oct. 3 of last year, the outer shell of each team looked pretty much the same. The Black Knights ran the triple option and did precious little in the realm of the passing game, while the Green Wave used a more conventional pro-style offense in the search for run-pass balance. Both teams committed one turnover then, just as they did this past Saturday in New Orleans. Army owned a substantial time of possession advantage 53 weeks ago, as was the case this past weekend inside the big dome.

Why, then, did Army manage to whack the Green Wave in Louisiana, whereas it couldn't do the deed in last season's wrenching 17-16 loss? The difference between that Tulane tilt at Michie Stadium and this just-concluded clash in the Crescent City can be summed up in one word (other than "scoreboard," of course): steel.

This year, Army's made of sterner stuff. Ellerson's athletes – who now look a lot more comfortable in their own skin, are no longer masked by that outer shell they wore against Tulane a year ago. Now, the West Pointers have received a transfusion of extra toughness; they're now fortified with the substance that would make William Shakespeare proud.

Last year, Army scored 10 points in the first quarter against Tulane – on home turf, remember – and seemed poised to ring up big numbers against one of the bottom feeders in Conference USA. Tulane barely nudged Southeastern Louisiana THIS season in the Superdome, and last year's Tulane outfit wasn't discernibly different from this year's team down on the Bayou. The Green Wave have been stuck in a rut for a very long time; the academic powerhouse has not produced a winning season in the Big Easy since 2002, so when Army bolted out of the box in 2009 against Tulane, the home folks in West Point had a right to expect more offensive fireworks over the final three quarters.

Those fireworks, as you're well aware, never emerged.

Army managed only six additional points over the final three quarters of last year's battle against Tulane. It's not that the Black Knights didn't try hard enough; they never mail in a Saturday performance. What did happen was that Army – in a combination of factors – couldn't keep its foot on the gas pedal. Partly due to a learning process under Ellerson and partly due to the lack of a winner's mentality, Army fell into a pronounced lull after the good start against Tulane last year. In a small and subtle but very real process of psychological development, the Black Knights learned that success can't translate into an expectation of ease.

When points are quickly posted in any sporting event, and an opponent fails to provide an anticipated level of resistance, the tricky part of the equation is to devote yet MORE effort to the process. Army didn't lower its level of fight one year ago against Tulane; what happened was that the Black Knights scored so easily that they found it hard to find another level of intensity once the Green Wave made necessary adjustments and ramped up their own level of focus.

It's easier to perform at a high level when an opponent pushes you and challenges you from the start. Because Tulane provided almost no push-back in the first quarter of its 2009 visit to Michie Stadium, Army scored what amounted to "fool's gold" points. The Black Knights briefly thrived without taking an opponent's best shot. When Tulane woke up, Army couldn't generate enough momentum or adrenaline to eclipse the Green Wave.

Last year's 17-16 loss to Tulane illustrated how competition ebbs and flows in unique patterns on each and every one-of-a-kind gameday. To use an example from another sport, it's often better for a tennis player to win the first set of a match by a 6-4 or 7-5 score, after a legitimate battle in which s/he is pushed to a certain extent. If a player wins the first set by a lopsided 6-1 count in roughly 20 minutes, the opponent can easily forget about the bad start and dig in for the second set with a greater competitive urgency than the winner of the first set. The player who just got waxed in the first set begins the second set with fresh focus and concentration, and as soon as the scoreline gets tight in the second and third sets, the player who didn't show up for the first 20 minutes suddenly has far more belief in pressure-packed moments. The scoreline of the match ends up 1-6, 7-5, 6-4, and the winner of the first set loses the match.

This, in short, is what Tulane did a year ago against Army. The Black Knights were passionate and prepared, but they didn't adjust well to the game flow. The start was so easy that it threw the West Pointers out of rhythm. Tulane played like a wounded dog with its life hanging in the balance, and presto! The Green Wave exhibited more desperation and poise in crunch time.

One year later, however, Army showed that it had learned its lesson 53 weeks after the fact.

This time, a Trent Steelman fumble in the first quarter – which led to a Tulane touchdown – did not disturb or hijack the Black Knights' level of concentration.

This time against Tulane, Army was the team that made adjustments within the feel and flow of the game, storming Toledo's troops for 17 second-quarter points.

This time, Steelman didn't experience a manifest drop-off in quality against the Green Wave. Occasionally brilliant last year, the maestro of Army's triple option presided over a third-straight outing in which the Black Knights posted at least 35 points. Steelman is generating almost metronomic consistency for a well-oiled machine that isn't losing its level of lubrication. Whereas Army petered out and tallied just 196 rushing yards last year against Tulane, this year's triple option cranked out 312 yards on the ground and kept pushing forward to the finish line. Indeed, Army scored 17 more second-half points to complement its 24-point first-half output. Last year, Army played one and a half solid quarters. This year, Army played three really good quarters before the defense casually greeted a 31-7 lead by allowing 16 fourth-quarter points to the Green Wave in garbage time.

These aren't supermen in Army helmets. However, in the same breath, you can say that the 2010 Black Knights – 4-2 at the season's midpoint – are ripening into men of steel. The nerves, toughness, grit and persistence that define winning teams – bowl teams – are beginning to emerge throughout an increasingly confident roster.

Some young men are learning how to win, everybody. That elusive art – not seen in West Point since 1996 – can be seen in the brushstrokes being painted on the green fields of Autumnal Saturdays. It's still a long way to Tipperary for Army football, but with more efforts like the one displayed this past weekend against Tulane, this team will get where it needs to go in 2010, and this program will find the fulfillment it's been awaiting for nearly a decade and a half.

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