Rutgers Review: A Half-Full Bowl

With Virginia Military Institute and Kent State still on the 2010 schedule, it's still quite likely that Army will make a bowl game before this season is done. However, with that reality in plain sight, it's also true that the Black Knights can do so much more than finish at 6-6. A wrenching loss at Rutgers needs to get this team to be better than it's been so far.

Yes, the bigger picture tells us that Army is still highly likely to make a bowl game. VMI – barring a mammoth collapse from coach Rich Ellerson's club – should provide win number five for the Brave Old Army Team. A trip to Kent State – an inhabitant of the lower tier of the less-than-imposing Mid-American Conference – is likely to bear the sixth win that will carry Army across the threshold and into a postseason pageant for the first time in 14 years. Compared to where this program's been over the past one and a half decades, the Black Knights are in much better shape.

There's no question that the ceiling for West Point football has been raised under Ellerson, a triple-option impresario who has instilled new levels of potency and power into an Army gridiron outfit. There's much to be thankful for, whether you're a Michie Stadium season-ticket holder or a member of the United States Army listening to overseas radio or grabbing an international satellite feed for three and a half hours on a Saturday. The big picture demands a certain amount of gratitude for the past one and a half seasons, which are pointing to a bowl bid in year two of the Ellerson era.

Yet, one can look at that landscape of leadership and still conclude that this team could be so much better than what it's shown in 2010. Saturday's acutely agonizing overtime loss to Rutgers underscored that point in bright red letters that were as bold as the "R-U-T-G-E-R-S" painted in the north end zone of the new Meadowlands Stadium, the same end zone where the Scarlet Knights knocked off the Black Knights in a 23-20 thriller.

We said early on in the 2010 season that there was no room for any message-board-style complaints about Army's record over the course of the season. There was no place or space in which to unfurl the familiar lament that "Oh, Army was just three plays from being undefeated!", or some similarly futile thought which serves absolutely no purpose. If teams make plays, they win games; if they don't, they're not deserving of higher standing. No, Army shouldn't be 7-0 despite its high-wire failures against Hawaii, Temple, and now Rutgers. No, Army shouldn't have a better record than what it does; middle-of-the-road teams turn 7-0 into 4-3, and folks, that's exactly what Army is after the first seven weeks of play.

The irony is cruel for the Black Knights after they came so painfully close to winning in a gleaming, massive new ballpark: One week after taking down the Tulane team that bedeviled them in 2009 – in a game we spent a lot of time contemplating, it should be noted – Army played a game that eerily resembled the Tulane tilt that turned into a 17-16 stomach punch.

The quick start and a double-digit first-half lead followed by a wretched second half from the offense? Check.

The untimely penalties in crucial situations? Check.

The one-play-away-from-winning scenario turned into a ghastly reversal of fortune? Check.

The inability to finish drives in the red zone? Check.

For all the improvements that have undeniably occurred this season, it has to be uniquely discouraging that Trent Steelman and the rest of Army's offense couldn't score a single point in the second half against Rutgers on a day when a lonely field goal would have proved to be too much for the Scarlet Knights to overcome in regulation time. For all the ways in which Army's overall capacities have increased, it has to be profoundly disappointing to see a number of 2009 patterns persist into the second half of the 2010 campaign. No, Army shouldn't be viewed as a team that ought to be 6-1 or 7-0; this is not yet a team which should be accorded such respect or stature. This is basically a .500 team in an era when 35 bowl games allow a .500 team to make a bowl game.

What Army needs in order to be better than .500 – and to claim a really significant scalp before this season is over – is to insist on greater excellence in the crucible of man-making motivational moments. Resting in the knowledge that a bowl bid is likely should be the last thing this team can – or should – do. Army must push forward with even greater determination and vigor if a .500 season (which is what this year looks like at the moment) is to be the floor, and not the ceiling, for the Black Knights' body of achievement in the coming months.

It's true that one aspect of the big picture is that Army is likely to go bowling, but something far more meaningful than a bowl game is for the Black Knights to step up in the Commander-In-Chief's Trophy series. Army hasn't won a C-I-C game since it beat Air Force in 2005. That lonely win over the Falcons marks the only time since 2001 that the Black Knights have beaten one of their (FBS) service-academy foes. Ellerson's athletes are sick and tired of getting shot down by the high-fliers from Colorado Springs and getting sunk by the Midshipmen from Annapolis.

The brutal truth provided by this Rutgers loss is that Army does not yet appear ready to win either one of its C-I-C games in 2010, despite the fact that the Falcons – losers to San Diego State this past weekend – and the not-so-hot Midshipmen are distinctly vulnerable. Bad habits – and deficient displays in money situations – led Army to go cruisin' for a bruisin' against Rutgers. These same irritating tendencies will make the Black Knights go flyin' for a cryin' against the Air Force Academy, and sailing for a wailing (or a whaling, take your pick) against the Naval Academy.

Does Army want to be remembered as a .500 team that backdoored into a lower-tier bowl in 2010, or do the Black Knights wish to claim the other, greater gridiron glories that are waiting to be taken? Army is still likely to avoid a losing season, but 6-6 isn't a winning campaign, either. It's time for pressure-packed moments to bring out this team's very best qualities, and not any doses of the stage fright that's still very much present in this team's football DNA. The slip-on-a-banana-peel traits which never left Army last season have resurfaced in three bitter losses this year; at some point, the West Pointers in helmets and pads need to expunge them from their system. Otherwise, a season rich in opportunity will acquire a sad "what-could-have-been" trajectory.

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