Party Like It's 1996

After 14 years, the Army Black Knights are back in college football's postseason. A long and arduous climb to a bowl bid is over, regardless of what happens in the Black Knights' final two games. Following a number of near misses, this program doesn't have to worry about its late-December travel itinerary.


Saturday afternoon at Dix Stadium in Kent, Ohio, a football program with a proud history and a rich heritage finally did something worthy of its name. Army, which had come close to six wins under Bobby Ross and then last year under Rich Ellerson, busted through a longstanding barrier in Ellerson's second season. The Black Knights, once again executing with supreme precision on offense – just as they have in their other top performance this year – proved to be too much for the Kent State Golden Flashes. Precisely because this band of brothers put the pieces together on the offensive side of the ball, the Brave Old Army Team responded to its loss against Air Force and clinched a non-losing season for the first time since 1996.

Yes, when the holidays roll around, Army will once again practice for a football game instead of staying home. All the benefits of a bowl – particularly the added practice time and the ability to play a solid intersectional opponent – will once again flow toward West Point. One of the persistent and pressing questions surrounding a school's football operations can blessedly and providentially fade away into the night. When the kickoff for the 2011 season approaches, Army coaches and players won't be asked, "Can you finally get to a bowl game this year and fix the problems that need to be fixed?" Instead, they'll be given this basic question: "Can you reach a bowl two years in a row and build upon the successes you've already established?" My, what a refreshing change that will be in the shadows of Michie Stadium.

There's a time to be a concerned contrarian, and there's a time when it's more appropriate to celebrate achievements instead of lamenting the possibility of negative trends and developments. Yes, there's an incomplete aspect to Army's 2010 campaign, but today is not the day to devote copious amounts of time to a withering cross-examination of the Black Knights' deficiencies. We know that if this team finishes 6-6, losing to Notre Dame and Navy in the process, the Brave Old Army Team will have fallen short in certain ways, thereby leaving an unpleasant aftertaste in a lot of fans' mouths. However, a six-win season – which would have been gleefully and immediately snapped up by any Army backer before this season started – is still, without question, a successful mark for Ellerson's athletes. The flow of this season and a measurement of 2010's more immediate contours might suggest that Army must finish 7-5 in order to stand as a success, but an assessment based more on the long view would tell us that the Black Knights of the Hudson have already achieved big this fall.

Indeed: Let the season reviews of mid-December and the post-bowl examinations talk about the 2010 season in greater detail. For now, though, there are different kinds of stories that need to be written. Let the "6-6 versus 7-5 (or 8-4)" discussion drift into the background. On this day and during this week, the number-one topic in the Black Knights' world should be the return to the postseason and the procurement of a bowl invite for the first time since the 1996 Independence Bowl, when Army ventured down to Shreveport, Louisiana, and gave Auburn a good run before falling short, 32-29. That 1996 Auburn team matured and ripened into the 1997 SEC West Division champions, so it's clear that Army played an upward-bound SEC powerhouse on relatively even terms 14 years ago. If these present-day Black Knights can do anything similar in their bowl game, Mr. Ellerson and the rest of his coaching staff will be thrilled.

Now, a word about this crowning conquest against Kent State, the feat which has made all this postseason talk possible: The great virtue of Saturday's 45-28 win over a middle-tier Mid-American Conference foe is that after hiccups and stumbles in a number of losses (and actually, even in some of the team's victories), the Army triple-option roared to life and rediscovered the joys of a peak performance. The Black Knights scored on five of their first seven possessions – when you exclude an official (but not very meaningful) possession which began with 24 seconds left in the first half at Army's own 22-yard line – to forge a 35-14 third-quarter lead.

To develop Saturday's big story a little more fully, it has to be said that Trent Steelman, the same man who faltered in money situations against Air Force and couldn't string together stacks of big-league plays against the Falcons, was much sharper in this clocking of Kent. Army continued to post seven points when the West Point offense reached the Golden Flashes' red zone. It wasn't until midway through the fourth quarter – armed with a 14-point lead – that the Black Knights settled for three points. On this day, Steelman was made of sterner stuff, and since Kent State turned the ball over four times to aid Army's cause, Steelman's efficiency was magnified all the more in a direct comparison with KSU quarterbacks Giorgio Morgan (two interceptions on just nine pass attempts) and Spencer Keith (one interception on just 11 throws). Army was spotless in the giveaway department, while Kent's four turnovers killed coach Doug Martin's men more than anything else in this intersectional encounter. Verily, this was an illuminating inversion of the Air Force game, a time in which Army made all the clutch plays and Kent State short-circuited just when it was on the verge of attaining something special.

Speaking of attaining something special: That's the blessed gridiron world in which Army football lives right now. Pop open the champagne and allow a celebration to unwind for 24 hours. Before the Notre Dame preparation cranks into high gear, let's savor and salute what Army football has done after roughly one and a half decades in the college football wilderness. It really and truly is time to party like it's 1996 in West Point.

On, Brave Old Army Team! On to the brave and bold new world of a bowl game once again, as though it's being tasted for the very first time.

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