As you likely know, Janus is the god of gates, depicted with two faces that look in opposite directions – one toward the future, one toward the past. This is how the month of January got its name, as the old year gives way to the new one and a threshold of history is formed. For the Army football team, Saturday's game against the competitive Keydets of the Football Championship Subdivision was never entirely a matter of the present moment. Yes, Army did tend to the task at hand with enough focus to grind out a workmanlike 29-7 win, but if you're unsatisfied with the lack of crispness on the Black Knights' side of the divide, you're worrying too much.
This is where the Stanford Parallel (forget about the 49th Parallel – this isn't a movie we're talking about) comes into play. It's not a hard concept to grasp.
On October 16, Stanford had a bye week. When the Cardinal returned to the field for a home game on Oct. 23 against lowly Washington State, a team at the bottom of the FBS food chain (and hence not overwhelmingly better than the VMI team Army just beat), America expected Stanford to unload on Wazzu. Not so – the Cougars were down by 24 points early in the fourth quarter, but they were actually within 17 for much of the afternoon in the San Francisco Bay Area, and they closed with two touchdowns to lose by only 10, at 38-28. Stanford wasn't pushed to the limit, but by the same token, Washington State fought the Cardinal far more competitively than a lot of people expected. As Stanford went to Washington this past week, Oct. 30, a fair number of people felt the words "upset special" tripping lightly from their lips, as the homestanding Huskies were prepping to spring an ambush of the Cardinal.
Stanford uncorked a 28-0 burst in the game's first 21 minutes and 22 seconds, burying Washington with a max-out performance in all phases of play. No dimension of Stanford's vast arsenal was lacking, and the focus on the Cardinal sideline was dialed in from the word go. The boys from The Farm painted a masterpiece on the canvas known as Husky Stadium in Seattle, and suddenly, the nature of Stanford's ho-hum win over Washington State became apparent. Coach Jim Harbaugh didn't ride his team hard out of the bye week. Stanford paced itself, minimized the playbook against the Cougars, and did just enough to win that game against Wazzu without expending too much mental energy. The following week was a game the Cardinal needed to peak for, and that's when they looked both physically and mentally fresh.
So, as we turn our attention back to the Brave Old Army team – which took a bye week seven days after Stanford did, can we immediately see "The Stanford Parallel" at work here?
Surely, this VMI game was scheduled after the bye week to gently usher this team back into rhythm without applying too much pressure to the Black Knights. Surely, playing VMI before the Air Force game this year – and not after it, which was the case in 2009 – was designed to weed out some rust and similarly save the full playbook for the Falcons from Colorado Springs.
Surely, the fact that Army's offense scored the same amount of points it did last year against VMI – 22, if you're keeping track – should not be viewed with too much concern, because this time, Army's defense didn't get gashed for 328 rushing yards by the Keydets (that's sooooo 2009). This time, Army committed only two turnovers and not four. This time, Army allowed only seven points, and not 17. This time, Army cruised to a 22-point win instead of having to fight desperately for a five-point triumph against its band of military brothers from the Commonwealth of Virginia.
Yes, Army did not score an offensive touchdown in the second half against VMI, just like last year's game against the Keydets. Yes, Army converted just 2-of-13 third downs, which is never a good sign for a triple-option team. Yes, quarterback Trent Steelman completed just 4-of-11 passes and did not play with the precision he exhibited against those Navy-slaying Blue Devils from Duke. There were indeed a lot of things Army needs to polish and improve upon in the upcoming week of practice. The key question, though, is this: "Were these imperfections an indicator of alarming trends, or inevitable byproducts of an intent to slowly return to form and ramp up for the Air Force game on Nov. 6?"
Upper-tier teams in any sport know how to pace themselves. Teams which are on the road to becoming upper-tier outfits learn how to pace themselves as they move up the college football food chain. Every great team or individual athlete, in the process of becoming great, has to be able to win on a day when the level of mental energy simply doesn't surge through the body. It's easy to experience an adrenaline rush and benefit from heightened focus in a championship game or in a contest against a heated rival, but on the days when a low-key (or perhaps, low-Keydet) opponent comes across the calendar, the ability to dig out a win – even if manifestly unimpressive – is a vastly underappreciated skill. "Winning without your very best stuff" is a phrasing that's most commonly applied to baseball pitchers, as the 2010 World Series winds its way toward a conclusion. The same principle applies in football and all other sports as well.
We should all appreciate that on a sojourn through 12 Saturdays, the level of focus is not going to exist at the same (high) level on each of those days. The Saturdays against Air Force and Navy and Notre Dame will make players run through walls and jump tall buildings with a single bound, but it's games against VMI and Tulane and Duke that are just as important in the journey toward a bowl game. Army is winning these games this year, and what's why the next victory for this team will clinch the first non-losing season in West Point since 1996. It's all in the pacing for Rich Ellerson's athletes. Stanford seems to think the same way, given its progression from bye week to lightweight opponent, and then on to a bigger fish. Army's progression from bye week to VMI will hopefully be followed by an A-grade effort against the United States Air Force Academy.
The bottom line on this VMI game is that it should not be studied too intensively or given an overly broad verdict. We'll see if this uneven yet ultimately effective performance does indeed translate into a high-level showing against Air Force, as this program sets its sights on the Commander-In-Chief's Trophy and looks ahead, like Janus, to the possibilities of the future. Roman gods and Stanford Parallels might seem like odd ways to refer to a West Point football team, but hey, if the shoe fits, Army might as well wear it… all the way to the Commander-In-Chief's Trophy winner's circle.
VMI Review: The Stanford Parallel
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