Air Force: Lessons From Another Academy

The Army football team will be cheered on by the United States Naval Academy this Saturday, but the Black Knights couldn't care less about that reality. Coach Jeff Monken's team, after a bye week, needs to admire Air Force and learn from the Falcons before it can then beat the other FBS service academy, the one from Colorado Springs. Army wants to make a little history of its own.


THE LONG, VERTICAL CLIMB FOR ARMY: LEARNING HOW TO RISE

The Army football team is trying to climb from a deep ditch to an elevated place. The Black Knights have very rarely tasted success in this new and still-evolving century, and at some point in the not-too-distant future, they want to be able to once again know what it’s like to be a good team not just in an isolated season (2010), but on an annual basis. This reality, this aspiration, is what makes this Saturday’s contest against Air Force so utterly fascinating.

Army is playing for itself, of course, but the national angle on this game is that the Black Knights’ result against the Falcons will shape the Commander-In-Chief’s Trophy chase for 2014. If Air Force wins, it takes back the trophy from Navy in what has become a tug of war between the two academies in recent years. If Army wins, the folks in Annapolis will be happy, because they’ll have a chance to retain the trophy in a month and a half. Army doesn’t want to help Navy – it wants to be able to win the CIC Trophy for the first time since 1996. Yet, from a national perspective, that will be the storyline if Air Force leaves West Point with a loss.

Army wants to make life miserable for Air Force, but having said that, Army needs to take some time to admire what the Falcons have forged this season. Learning from a teacher in any field of endeavor enables the student to one day surpass that teacher; this is the narrative theme standing in front of the Black Knights in advance of this late-morning kickoff at Michie Stadium.

You would not have found many people before this season who would have picked Air Force as the CIC Trophy winner. The Falcons had to absorb the humiliation flowing from a damning report by the Colorado Springs Gazette about lax recruiting standards and wayward player behavior over the past several years. On the field, the Falcons had to confront the misery of a two-win season in 2013, with only one of those wins coming against an FBS opponent. Physically weak, not very resilient on defense, and generally prone to mistakes, the Falcons simply collapsed. This marked an abrupt departure for a program that had made a bowl game in each of coach Troy Calhoun’s first six seasons on the job. Air Force experienced what Navy did in 2011: a losing season after many years of success.

Look at how the program has responded in 2014.

Air Force is a far tougher team at the line of scrimmage, especially on its defensive line. Boise State has a generally good offense, but Air Force made the Broncos look amateurish, shutting them out, 28-0, earlier this season before Boise State scored two meaningless garbage touchdowns in the fourth quarter. What will also help Air Force entering Michie Stadium is that it just played another triple-option team, New Mexico, and survived. Air Force’s defense will be accustomed to triple-option football, so Army’s going to have to be extra good just to stay on even terms with the Falcons. The Black Knights face a massive task this Saturday.

One more point worth advancing is that last year, even in the midst of its failures, Air Force was able to get off the deck in one of its FBS games. The Falcons were pushed around for much of the first half, but they won the second half, 21-7. Who was this team Air Force was able to rally against? Army, of course. The Black Knights’ penchant for faltering in second halves, so constantly in evidence this year, was displayed last year against a team that hadn’t even begun to rise.

Now, it’s time for Army to learn how to rise, to build the foundation for an ascendant 2015 by making its move against Air Force. Now, it’s time for Army to turn the tables on the Falcons and find that moment of inspiration it can cling to in the coming offseason… while also making a run at a piece of hardware it hasn’t claimed in nearly 20 years.

You can’t fly when you’re below the surface of the ground. You have to climb from a subterranean place first. Air Force did that, beginning with its win over Army last year. Now, it’s time for West Point football to begin that same journey and process in earnest.

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