Is Army ready for a big game?

Rich Ellerson's rebuilding efforts to restore Army football met one of its goals in his second season as head coach when Army qualified for Armed Forces Bowl on December 30. This is another statement or "big" game; a victory over SMU would secure for the Black Knights their first winning season since 1996.

While respectability has been restored under Ellerson, success in what can be viewed as big games hasn't. When on the bigger stages against higher profile schools and its fellow service academies, the Black Knights have come up short. In October at 4-2 Army, despite setting a school single game record for sacks, lost in overtime to Rutgers. Air Force was the next challenge and Army gave up a number of big plays as the Falcons defeated Army 42-22 at Michie.

Army had a national audience on Saturday night against Notre Dame in prime time in the new Yankee Stadium. It was a chance to show the nation Army football was back. Instead Army ended up producing their worst game of the season against a Fighting Irish team that was dominated only a few weeks earlier by Navy. Against Navy they forced four turnovers by the Mids yet still lost by two touchdowns for the second consecutive year.

Part of the problem in the "big" games against better opponents has been that the Black Knight's talent at offensive skill positions still needs to be upgraded. Army has been fundamentally sound team under Rich Ellerson. The team is better and has improved but the fact remains that Army lacks offensive playmakers that can flip the field, turn a corner and take a pitch 80 yards. Army's offense has been efficient this year averaging 26.9 points per game but against better foes it must grind it out. Team speed is something you recruit, not something a coach can teach.

The other concern is Army needs to stop the self-inflicted wounds that have been far too common in big games. Like Trent Steelman's goal line fumble going into what turns into a Navy 98-yard touchdown return. Those are the negative plays that have haunted this program the past decade. In the Army-Navy post game Rich Ellerson referred in the post-game appropriately to the "knucklehead things" in describing the Black Knights breakdowns in key spots. It's one of the reasons Army has lost three of its last four games.

The bowl game offers Army a chance at big game redemption and to finish with its first winning season since 1996. SMU will present a major challenge with its high powered offense. Earlier this season Army struggled against June Jones' old Hawaii team that still runs his Run & Shoot offense. The defensive backs, especially Josh Jackson, had a tough time dealing with the Run & Shoot offense choice and its switch routes that were open all day.

SMU's Run and Shoot offense ranks 22th in the nation in passing averaging over 273 yards a game. Army has to avoid the big plays in the passing game. Rick Ellerson in his press conference said that we don't match up with them especially well; our defensive backs and their receivers. "That continues to be a challenge for us,'' he said.

"To be successful with our system versus theirs (we have to) generate pressure and we're going to have to keep the big play, the big ball, from going over our head, which has been a challenge for us. In some of the more painful losses, it was a ball that went over our head, and that erases a volume of really good work

One of our long-standing goals for the last two years has been to stay together and bring it back. We've certainly stayed together." Ellerson continued, "and when we say, 'bring it back,' we're talking about bringing winning football back to West Point. We're on the threshold of doing that. We have a chance to finish the right way.''

For Army to finish the "right way" it will need to prove that it can win a big game.

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