Ellerson Evades Excellence

A Notre Dame defense that had already faced Navy's flexbone offense was able to get the hang of Army's option-based attack on Saturday night at Yankee Stadium. The Black Knights' loss isn't a cause for a lack of sleep. What is unsettling – as the three-week buildup toward Navy begins – is that Rich Ellerson does not look like a coach who is ready to grab the bull by the horns.

You remember Ellerson's unwillingness to gamble on manageable fourth-down situations inside the Navy 30 roughly 11 months ago in Philadelphia. You remember how Ellerson flinched in that contest at Lincoln Financial Field, the site of this year's game between the Black Knights and the Midshipmen. You remember how Ellerson was awfully willing to kick a lot of field goals in the Commander-In-Chief's Trophy game against Air Force a few weeks ago. This is not the incarnation of Ellerson that initially came to the United States Military Academy.

Recall how Ellerson gambled and played the game boldly earlier in 2009, as was shown in a ballsy move at Temple (ironically, on the same piece of Lincoln Financial Field). The move against Temple didn't work, but it showed a man who was willing to trust his offense and challenge his players to make plays. That's how so-so teams become better, and that's part of the reason why Army has been able to punch its ticket to a bowl game this year (it will happen; don't sweat that situation… there's no reason at all to think Army will be snubbed in this process). Ellerson has done good work in West Point, but there's no question that he's gotten more conservative on fourth downs since the first half of the 2009 season.

Before going onward, let's establish this point: Ellerson's larger body of work at Army has been solid. Mistakes aren't as copious in year two of his regime, and last year's decidedly balkier offense has acquired a little more potency and scoring punch. Improvement is clear, and a postseason ticket awaits. On those fronts, one can't knock the overall job the Hawaii alumnus has done in the Northeastern corner of the country. The big picture is very much in view, and Ellerson gains passing marks within that expansive contest… without any doubt whatsoever. So, with that point in mind, let's now attack (and that word is chosen quite intentionally) the most urgent issue facing the Brave Old Army Team (or perhaps, the Not-So-Brave Army Coaching Staff) heading into the one game on the calendar that really matters in West Point.

Forget the fact that Notre Dame learned how to defuse the Army offense. The Irish got an advance lesson from Navy a month earlier, putting the Black Knights at a pronounced disadvantage. Notre Dame is also a different team after a mind-cleansing, spirit-clearing bye week which arrived at just the right time. A loss to Tulsa, but much more importantly the death of team videographer Declan Sullivan, demanded that the Irish take a break from football. They received it, and on the other side of that mental mountain, they became a team transformed… no, not a BCS bowl-level club, but a solid team with enough discipline and composure to get out of its own way. Tommy Rees hiccupped once in this game at the late George Steinbrenner's new pleasure palace in the Bronx, but the Notre Dame signal caller – thrust into the starting role after an injury to No. 1 quarterback Dayne Crist – found a rhythm soon enough. With receiver Michael Floyd roaming the edges and Notre Dame owning a pronounced size-and-beef advantage in the trenches, it's no great sin that Army came up short. It's no searing indictment of the program that the Black Knights couldn't measure up on national television, in prime time, on the occasion of the renewal of an all-time college football matchup. No one was expecting the 1946 Game of the Century or the 1924 Four Horsemen collision to re-emerge in New York; Army can move on from this game and learn about how to conduct hand-to-hand combat at the line of scrimmage.

There's only one worrisome aspect of this Notre Dame loss as Navy beckons in a few weeks, and that's the decision-making quality of the West Point head coach.

The tone of this romantic college football rendezvous – a game that evoked memories of Grantland Rice and Gus Dorais; of Doc Blanchard and Glenn Davis; of Knute Rockne and Johnny Lujack – was established in the first quarter. Army's option confounded Notre Dame before the Irish gained confidence in their ability to stop the Black Knights. But oh, just what was it that might have fueled Notre Dame's fires of self-belief? Yes, it was Ellerson's decision to kick a field goal on fourth-and-goal just inside the Irish 3. Perhaps you would contend that the percentages aren't great with three yards to go as opposed to one yard or one foot. Maybe you would be inclined to say that you should collect points early and bank them for the fourth quarter – that's not a faulty line of reasoning in terms of strategy, and for many other teams, a field goal would have been the proper move at that point in a game. However, to understand why this was a horrible move by Ellerson is to realize that Army is not yet at a point where it can always make "normal" football decisions. If this program is to become more like Navy – which means winning nine games a year and, you know, WINNING THE ARMY-NAVY GAME – the Black Knights have to develop testicular fortitude in order to successfully complete their journey to a more lofty place.

The problem with Ellerson's timid decisions in last year's Navy game is the same problem with his field goal against Notre Dame in this special, one-of-a-kind event. In a nationally-televised neutral-site game, Army isn't playing to ensure a bowl bid or achieve some modest goal. Whenever this program plays a neutral-site game or a Commander-In-Chief game, the normal calculus of football doesn't apply.

When playing a rival, or when immersed in an environment that is essentially akin to a bowl game (playing Notre Dame in New York would certainly rise to meet that standard), there's nothing to lose. The big stage is already there, the national platform already in existence. There's nothing to protect, unlike a lazy Saturday against a Tulane or an Eastern Michigan or a Duke. That's when solid, no-frills, nuts-and-bolts percentage football should be advanced. When facing teams you should beat, especially on home turf, there's no need to take chances; your superior talent will win out. However, when you occupy the klieg-light glare of NBC or CBS cameras, and you're surrounded by pomp, pageantry, and A-list personalities from the worlds of sports, politics and entertainment, you're not facing a normal game with normal emotions. In these kinds of environments, making plays is the biggest momentum generator. Being bold is the best way to generate a winning mindset on your team and inspire new heights of confidence.

What's more is this: unlike the fourth quarter against Navy in 2009, this fourth-down decision Ellerson faced against Notre Dame came in the first quarter. If Army had been stopped by the Irish, what were the negative consequences? In a game that demanded touchdowns and not field goals, Army would have pinned Notre Dame's passing offense inside the 5 at the closed end of Yankee Stadium, with more crowd noise in play. The upside of going for the touchdown was so much greater than the downside of failing, but Ellerson clearly didn't see the issue that way. Against Navy, touchdowns are going to be essential; field goals won't cut the mustard. Yet, one fears that Army's boss is going to be far more passive than the situation requires.

It's time for some brass; time for some intestinal strength on the part of Rich Ellerson. One neutral-site game did not get handled well. As long as the next one does, however, this loss to Notre Dame will not have been in vain.

ArmySports.com Top Stories