2011 Preview: Sent To The Gridiron Front
Let's start a discussion of the state of Army football by saying the following: Last season was a fantastic one. Not a perfect one, but a sure delight to everyone who loves the United States Military Academy at West Point. A winning season, capped by an upset win in a de facto road game in suburban Dallas against Southern Methodist, bestowed upon the Black Knights an Armed Forces Bowl championship and an offseason full of satisfaction. The Brave Old Army Team lived up to its hallowed and honored name, competing with the resilience and resourcefulness that always draw admiration from any lover of sport, played at its robust best. The 2010 Army assemblage was not a study in precision or artistry, but it was the portrait of passion, spilled out in vivid relief on the sprawling 120-yard-long, 53-yard-wide canvas of the football field. Coach Rich Ellerson squeezed every last drop of effort from his charges, who did West Point proud and crafted a bowl-game memory they'll carry with them for the rest of their lives. Army's football family found the kind of crowning moment that had been in very short supply over the past decade and a half. A number of "to-dos" on Ellerson's list have been checked off. The catharsis attached to such achievements is palpable.
Feel good? Army fans should.
Now, though, comes the hard part, accompanied by some unsettling truths. Plainly put, the 2011 season is going be a bear unless the Black Knights can radically improve their level of execution and substantially increase their proficiency in the passing game.
That statement is hardly hyperbolic. If you're not convinced, try this fact on for size: As successful as Army's season was last year, the Brave Old Army Team did not defeat a single Football Bowl Subdivision team that finished the season with a winning record. That's right. Eastern Michigan, North Texas, Duke, Tulane, and Kent State all had losing records. VMI, from the FCS, owned a losing record. As for Southern Methodist, the team Army defeated in the Armed Forces Bowl, the Mustangs ended their year with a 7-7 record because of their loss to Central Florida in the Conference USA Championship Game, the 13th game on their schedule and thereby the gateway to a .500 record in 14 contests. Army did well last season, but it didn't beat a Murderer's Row. The triumph over SMU was by far the team's best win. (Hawaii and Temple slipped through the Black Knights' fingers in close clashes at Michie Stadium.)
This year, the schedule won't be so kind. Ellerson is expecting more from his ballplayers, and this is precisely the kind of slate which will demand marked improvement from Army throughout the roster.
A common thread runs through Northern Illinois, San Diego State, and Northwestern, the first three teams on the 2011 schedule: The Huskies, Aztecs and Wildcats all own gifted quarterbacks coming off bowl-producing seasons. NIU's Chandler Harnish – whom Army will see this upcoming weekend in DeKalb, Illinois – will only be the first of three superb signal callers to stare down the Black Knights' defense. Ryan Lindley of Los Aztecs comes to Michie Stadium in week two, and Dan Persa from Northwestern rides into West Point in week three. It's not enough to simply say that NIU, SDSU, and NU are three good teams. It's necessary to go one step further and note that those three clubs possess appreciable degrees of run-pass balance.
This is where the makeup of Army's offense takes center stage, and uncomfortably so.
One concern facing Army is the team's lack of depth. The Black Knights got worn down by Air Force and are still operating at a deficit when it comes to tackling their Commander-In-Chief's Trophy rivals from both Colorado Springs and Annapolis. However, an issue more urgent than depth is Army's persistent lack of a credible passing game.
As both Air Force and Navy have shown over the years, it's not as though it's necessary or even desirable to drop back five steps and pass on first and 10; the Falcons and Midshipmen have merely been able to boast enough of a passing game that defenses have to be on guard. Navy has been particularly adept at springing the vertical pass on its opponents, building a track record of unpredictability and – vitally – the ability to turn said unpredictability into a home-run touchdown play. For an Army program that didn't beat a single winning team in 2010, it's not being a Debbie Downer to gently point out that the Black Knights aren't able to play smashmouth ball for 60 minutes against upper-tier foes. That's just clear-headed common sense; Army isn't yet muscular enough in the trenches to win exclusively on the ground. Moreover, success in any team sport rests on the ability to get quick and comparatively easy scores every now and then. This team will need to catch fire in the passing game if it wants to knock off even one of the big boys it will face in its front-loaded schedule.
The other big goal for this season – beyond surviving September and playing big-league ball against credentialed opponents – is to win a Commander-In-Chief's Trophy game. Army has won only one CIC game since 2001. The need to expunge the bitter taste of defeat against service-academy rivals – especially the one Army plays on a neutral field on the second Saturday of December – is paramount at West Point. Cutting down on untimely turnovers forms the cornerstone of a winning effort against Air Force and Navy, but it's unrealistic to expect victory in a CIC game unless Trent Steelman, now a junior, can propel the pigskin with poise and prowess. Army got by in the Armed Forces Bowl because its defense stood on its head, but it's also instructive to note that the Black Knights sealed that 16-14 triumph because Steelman was able to convert a defining third-and-four in the final minutes with… yes… a forward pass, a 22-yard pitch-and-catch to Davyd Brooks. It's that kind of play which Army needs to unsheathe in meaningful moments this season. If the Brave Old Army Team can deliver a few timely daggers through the air, it will be able to punch at the underbelly of an opposing defense with that much more triple-option effectiveness.
Ultimately, there isn't a lot of mystery to this season. Army beat the beatable teams placed in front of it on the 2010 schedule. Now comes the front-loaded test posed by the 2011 slate. It's clear what the Black Knights need in order to produce a few statement-making wins; the only question is if Ellerson's athletes will deliver the goods. Onward, to the gridiron front!
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