Launching An Army Offensive

Defense might win championships, but as an independent, Army can't really win a championship other than the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy and – if you want to be technical about it – a bowl championship. Forget defense. It's time for the Black Knights to launch an offensive in 2012.


No, Army shouldn't forget defense, but the point should be apparent: This year of West Point football will pivot in one direction or another based on the performance of the Black Knights' offensive unit. The reason for such a line of argumentation is not cold and calculated in nature, not cerebral or finely analytical. Why place so much emphasis on offense in 2012 to the diminishment of defense in the shadows of Michie Stadium? It's about the attitude Army brings to the gridiron, the way in which this team – especially this offense – comports itself as it carries the weight of expectations.

No seasoned observer of college football needs a long lecture or dissertation on the value of a senior quarterback with a strong leadership presence. Trent Steelman has lived up to his last name in a generally laudable West Point career. He's taken hits – literal and figurative ones – while helping the Black Knights to a bowl appearance and victory in 2010. Steelman has competed with the grit and resilience that should be expected of any Army football player. As a leader, a striver, Steelman has answered the call, pouring his whole soul into the pursuit of victory and achievement. He's claimed a few scalps along the way, making a name for himself in the history of this storied program.

Now, though, Steelman enters his senior season with unfinished business to tend to. Air Force hasn't yet been beaten during his stay at West Point. A winning regular season hasn't been achieved during his career. Oh, and you might have noticed as well that a certain team from Annapolis, Maryland, has not been taken down by Steelman and the rest of Army's offense. There's no denying that Army's defense got gashed on several occasions last season, but a simple survey of the 12-game slate leads to a debatable but not-too-controversial conclusion: It was the offense that faltered in key situations, putting the Black Knights on the wrong side of the fine line between a close-shave victory and a devastating defeat. That's why the offense should be seen as the first priority and point of emphasis for coach Rich Ellerson in 2012.

Army could have wrested control of its contest against San Diego State, but fumble-itis reared its ugly head against Los Aztecs. The Black Knights got blasted at Ball State because their defense didn't show up, but if a 15-yard penalty at the Ball State 6 had not been committed, Army might have been able to change the momentum of the contest, preventing the Cardinals from feeling good about themselves (good enough, at any rate, to run past Army by a 24-0 count in the second quarter). The loss at Miami University occurred primarily because the Black Knights, leading 28-21 and controlling the flow of action late in the third quarter, fumbled to give the RedHawks a lifeline. The loss at Air Force was, to be honest, the result of a horrible non-touchdown call that went against Army at a time when the Black Knights already owned a 14-0 lead. However, the offense's inability to move the ball in the second half loomed large on that ill-fated afternoon in Colorado Springs.

The offense's role in Army's agonies from 2011 continued into the final few games of the season. The loss to Rutgers was primarily the result of a dubious penalty call against Army (another bad break brought to the Black Knights by the zebras) followed by a blocked punt, but if Ellerson's offense had been able to finish drives in the first half, Army could have changed the complexion of that contest inside Yankee Stadium.

Then, of course, came the finale against Navy, the game that hangs over Steelman and every other West Pointer like a dark cloud, a supremely unshakeable nightmare.

You know that Army has had chances to beat Navy in previous seasons. You know that a feisty first half has often put the Black Knights in position to create second-half magic, only for the team to fail to seize its moment of opportunity. You know that Army flinched in the red zone during the fourth quarter of the 2009 tilt against the Midshipmen, and then committed that catastrophic fumble near the goal line in 2010, leading to the length-of-the-field Navy touchdown that sank the Black Knights against their foremost rival. Last year, though, represented the most acute failure in Army's 10-game losing streak against Navy.

The details are painful, and they don't need to be revisited in full, but they demand a brief mention: Last year's Navy team was the worst one in Annapolis since 2002. The Midshipmen failed to make a bowl game for the first time in nine years. Moreover, Navy played like a non-bowl team, repeatedly putting the ball on the turf at FedEx Field in suburban Washington, D.C. Past Navy teams would have raced away from Army, but this time, the door remained open for the Black Knights to do something different. Ellerson watched his defense hold the fort against Navy in the fourth quarter, forcing field goals to give the offense its big chance. What could have been a 35-21 or 31-21 game remained winnable at 27-21, and when Army entered Navy's third of the field with the clock ticking down, the Black Knights could taste sweet success.

They proved unable to earn it, however.

Army had spent three and a half quarters matching Navy's turnovers while also throwing in a few more untimely penalties in a season replete with undisciplined plays and mental lapses. Yet, for all of those miscues, a seminal moment – stopping a nine-game Navy winning streak – lay within reach. However, a sack abruptly halted the Black Knights' momentum, and two plays later, the drive that had penetrated the Navy 30 ended on downs. The ending to the Navy game matched the season as a whole: Every unit of the 2011 Black Knights – offense, defense, and special teams – bore a fair share of responsibility for the team's collection of (subpar) results, but it was the offense that usually took center stage during tipping-point moments… and fell short in the glare of that spotlight.

With the past as prelude, one can perhaps see – not in a clean and clinical sense, but on a gut level – why the offense is (and should be) the gravitational center of Army football this season.

The failures have been endured. The memories have been absorbed, as much as the players and coaches would want to forget them instead. Select encounters with destiny have not led to fulfillment, but to heartbreak. The most meaningful games on Army's autumnal calendar have left this program wounded, not triumphant. With that precious commodity – a respected senior leader at quarterback – Army knows that it can't expect to have the perfect mixture of ingredients on its 2013 offense. If the losing streaks and gameday struggles against service-academy foes are going to come to an end, this offense and Mr. Steelman will have to max out. If Army is to put together a winning regular season (remember that six-win bowl seasons are probably not going to be part of college football's future), the defense will need to keep the Black Knights in contention on gamedays, but the offense will need to deliver the daggers.

Some might like their football analysis presented as cold science, but the sense here is that the 2012 season lends itself to the kind of analysis that mimics art. Army's offense might not appear to be so central to this team's fortunes when assessed through the prisms of numbers or the (ghastly) rush defense rankings hovering over this team's August preparations for the Sept. 8 opener at San Diego State. Scientifically and empirically, football is a shared effort distributed among all three phases of play. However, when seen as a novel – a sweeping work of art, overflowing with passion and drama – it's all about the O.

This service-academy football team needs Trent Steelman and Co. to launch a memorable offensive.

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