Tulane Review: Whiplash!
First, let's not deny it: Saturday's explosion – an all-out assault on the Tulane Green Wave – was immensely enjoyable and a welcome sight at Michie Stadium. It represented that old-fashioned tonic known as the "complete performance." The Northwestern win from a few weeks ago was a triumph of the spirit, a classic testament to resolve and resourcefulness in the crucible of crunch time. Army competed with supreme conviction against the Wildcats of the Big Ten and showed the grit of a team with another bowl game on the horizon. Taking down Northwestern despite a bunch of fits and starts (and poor field-goal kicking) was a big-league win, but it was so impressive for psychological reasons more than aesthetic ones. The gut-check triumph over the academic powerhouse from Evanston, Illinois, showcased all of Army's intangible virtues. The game did not showcase the Black Knights at the peak of their powers.
This game against Tulane marked the first time in 2011 that Ellerson's athletes did just about everything right. This was the masterclass everyone surrounding the program had been waiting for. Teams need to show they can win when they don't have their best fastball – that was the Northwestern game – but they do need to send statements on other occasions and prevail by dint of pure excellence, nothing less. This 39-point whacking of Tulane – a team that beat Alabama-Birmingham by 39 points on the road – allowed Army to flex its muscles and taste the rare feeling of substantial, unquestioned superiority, the feeling that allows a team to trust its abilities that much more. The ability to hammer a foe into submission should develop this team's confidence even more than the Northwestern game did.
Just how comprehensive was Army's dominance, one week after being humiliated by Ball State? The final score of 45-6 tells only a small part of the story. What one needs to realize is that after Tulane marched two thirds of the field in just three plays on its opening drive, Army didn't allow another point all afternoon. The numbers illustrate the Black Knights' brilliance in more vivid detail: In the final 58 minutes and 54 seconds of this game, Army shut out Tulane and allowed just under 130 yards of total offense, under 60 on the ground. After Tulane's quick burst at the very beginning of Saturday's tilt, Army pitched a shutout and was almost flawless in swamping the Green Wave. The visitors from New Orleans were not allowed to breathe.
And that was just on offense.
When Tulane played defense, Army was just as intent and aggressive. The Black Knights poured on more than 350 rushing yards on the Green Wave's front seven. Army possessed the ball for more than 35 minutes against a Conference USA team whose offense was not allowed to stay on the field and dictate the tempo of the proceedings. The Black Knights answered the bell each time they tried to convert a fourth down. A week after the pair of crippling personal foul penalties against Ball State, Army committed just three violations for a paltry 36 yards. The Brave Old Army Team put many pieces together.
Most of all, though, Army found – get this! – a passing game against Tulane, the ultimate sign of well-rounded improvement as an offensive unit. Trent Steelman efficiently ran the triple option, but on Saturday, he was able to throw for 70 yards and a touchdown. To put the cherry on top of the sundae, Steelman accumulated those numbers by hitting all three of the passes he threw, with two of them gaining at least 25 yards. This is the rare but existent big-play passing game that's been talked about for so many weeks in West Point, but hadn't come to the forefront. On Saturday, it did, and the 45-point outburst which accompanied this piece of pinpoint pigskin propulsion was no mere accident, no idle coincidence. This trouncing of Tulane hammered home the point that if Army can ever strike gold with the vertical passing game on just a handful of occasions, the triple-option rushing attack will become that much more imposing. On the same afternoon that Air Force and Navy made their fair share of passing plays, Army kept pace. If the Black Knights can continue to get a few bolts of lightning from Steelman's right arm (and not just his legs), this team can compete for the Commander-In-Chief's Trophy.
Now, though, comes the question: Will Army be able to sustain this effort, or at least, retain enough of the best aspects of this performance for the long haul? It was hard to shake the feeling that the Brave Old Army Team had turned the corner after the Northwestern win, but then came the crash-and-burn experience in Muncie, Indiana, against Ball State. Now that the pendulum has swung from the abysmal to the outstanding in yet another whiplash-inducing week, who knows what's coming up next?
On Sept. 24, Army was full of surprises, the kinds of surprises akin to getting a fruitcake or a lump of coal for Christmas. On Oct. 2, the Black Knights provided the unexpected in a distinctly different way, unwrapping a package with a gleaming, glowing and enduringly valuable gift inside. It's plain that Army can shock its fan base, for better and for worse. Now, Rich Ellerson's team has to acquire the quality offa team that can back up one sublime Saturday with another. This pattern of West Point whiplash needs to end… in the right ways and for all the right reasons.
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