It Gets Late Early Out There

The most defining moments of any Army football season arrive when Air Force and Navy line up on the other side of the ball. However, the 2011 Black Knights have already been thrust into a moment of reckoning. The Northern Illinois Huskies have performed a service for coach Rich Ellerson's team: They've forced this group to grow up quickly... at least, if it wants to go bowling again.


Yes, it's gotten late quite early for the Brave Old Army Team. Northern Illinois was breaking in a new coach (Dave Doeren) in Saturday night's season opener, but the Huskies showed the same frightening offensive proficiency they displayed for most of the 2010 season. Army felt the full force of NIU's effectiveness.

There's an old and famous anecdote about iconic college football coach Steve Spurrier. In 1980, Spurrier was part of the offensive braintrust on head coach Red Wilson's staff at Duke. Wilson consulted Spurrier about a play to draw up, asking his assistant what he had in mind. Spurrier answered, "a touchdown." Wilson accepted the play call and ordered it to be run. Sure enough, the play resulted in a touchdown, one of the early signs of Spurrier's genius as an offensive play caller.

Why mention that anecdote in connection with this sobering visit to DeKalb, Illinois? Well, to put it plainly, Northern Illinois threw a certain kind of pass – a "touchdown" pass, much as Spurrier called a "touchdown" play for Duke 31 years ago. The Huskies' star senior quarterback, Chandler Harnish, showed the Black Knights what big-boy quarterbacking looks like. Harnish completed only 12 passes, but of those 12, five went for touchdowns. It was as though Harnish was only interested in throwing "touchdown" passes. He did that quite a lot on Saturday, and as a result, NIU amassed a 42-6 lead…

…after just 35 minutes of competition.

Yes, the third quarter hadn't yet hit its halfway mark, and Army's hopes of even being competitive with the defending Mid-American Conference West Division champions were done. Northern Illinois threw down a standard of play that Army never had a prayer of matching. Ellerson, to his immense credit, is scheduling tougher games this year to force Army football into a higher realm of competitive grit and program-wide expectations. The soft bigotry of low standards doesn't exist at a place like West Point. Ellerson wants his players to make forward strides each and every year; that's the way things ought to be.

Now, though, after getting undressed by Northern Illinois, the Black Knights will have to put in a lot of hard yards if they want to close the gap between their desires and the cold, harsh feel of reality. With San Diego State looming this Saturday and Northwestern the week after, Ellerson's program has already been put in touch with a sobering realization: If massive improvements don't emerge in these next two weeks, an 0-3 start is going to be a fact of life, which will make a return trip to a bowl game that much harder to envision.

After losing a blowout, a coaching staff has an endless list of problems to fix, so it's not as though it's at all helpful to spotlight one particular thing the Black Knights failed to do. Every aspect of this team's performance, with the slight exception of the running game (it didn't function particularly well until the game was out of reach), failed to make the grade against NIU. If there's a point that urgently needs to be underscored and emphasized in the aftermath of week one, it is simply this: Army did not receive an extended taste of pressure-cooker football, because the pressure surrounding this contest left the building by halftime, when the Huskies had amassed a 35-6 lead.

Within the confines of a full season, a team suffering the bumps and bruises of weekly competition might have an off day in week eight or nine, as injuries mount or as the mental grind of fall Saturdays becomes increasingly apparent. There are times in a season when the bottom simply falls out – that's when it's a lot easier to accept a blowout loss. It can be chalked up as just "one of those days." It's different, though, when a blowout loss occurs on Opening Day. The grueling stretch of the season is only just beginning. The Black Knights cannot (and could not) plead to being worn down against NIU. They were quickly and clinically swept away by a senior quarterback who felt so clearly comfortable under a new head coach's system. They didn't have a chance to sink their teeth into this tussle; Northern Illinois didn't allow the Black Knights to get comfortable.

This raises a distressing issue, of course: Since Army wasn't playing pressure-packed football after halftime, it's very difficult to assess the final 25 to 30 minutes of play. Just how much meaning can be attributed to Army's three fourth-quarter touchdowns, which occurred only after NIU had built a 49-6 lead? Just how much value can be assigned to two quarters of action against an opponent that clearly stepped off the gas pedal? This will make player evaluations harder to come by; it also means that the prospect of a 60-minute grind against San Diego State becomes a little more daunting.

To state the obvious, this wasn't a 60-minute game Army played against NIU; teachable moments will certainly be found in Ellerson's film study sessions this week, but it will be hard for this team to put all the pieces together in a short amount of time. When a season opener isn't competitive for even three full quarters, the absence of tension and pressure carry extra weight. Army got exposed by NIU – that part is healthy, because it opens the door for Ellerson to address lots of problems. What's difficult to deal with, however, is the fact – and it is a fact – that the Black Knights aren't battle-tested as they emerge from this game. NIU was so swift and surgical in its evisceration of Army that the boys from West Point were never able to truly mount a challenge. This makes week one the kind of game to file into the garbage bin; that's not what a season opener is supposed to be.

It's time for this team to make rapid improvements and substantial adjustments – we all know that. The problem is that Northern Illinois disposed of the Black Knights so quickly that the Brave Old Army Team didn't find its competitive footing. Ellerson's athletes will need to quickly work through their shortcomings in the first 10 minutes against San Diego State. If the adjustment process takes longer than that, the Aztecs from the West Coast have the talent to do what Northern Illinois just did.

The hour grows late for this team, even though the season is in its very early stages. Welcome to reality, defending Armed Forces Bowl champions. Let's see how quickly these Army men can adjust.

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