The Army football program will enter the summer of 2015 with a feeling of hope. The Black Knights plainly outplayed Navy in the first half of the 2014 Army-Navy Game, offering convincing – but still premature and incomplete – evidence that Jeff Monken will be able to turn the program around. This idea of transformation at West Point burned brightly at the end of the 2010 season. Rich Ellerson made noticeable progress in what was his second season on the job. As Monken prepares for his second go-round in 2015, it’s certainly worth looking back at Ellerson’s one profound achievement as Army’s former head coach.
For all the times Army fell short in a meaningful game during Rich Ellerson’s tenure; for all the times quarterback Trent Steelman walked off a field bitterly disappointed; and for all the times Army couldn’t overcome the worst convergences of circumstances, such as the lack of taller goal posts in a recent loss to Yale (on a late field goal kick which certainly appeared to be good to the naked eye), the 2010 football season was a gift from the fates.
Yes, the 2010 Army team earned the breaks it received – Josh McNary and Stephen Anderson, among many others, busted their rear ends to lift Army to its only winning season since 1996, and to the program’s third bowl win, its first since 1985. Yet, while very much acknowledging the blood and sweat which poured from this persistent team, it has to be said that the 2010 campaign was this magical run which looks only more remarkable with the benefit of hindsight.
Before getting to the Armed Forces Bowl – the crown jewel of the season and the central reason the 2010 campaign is remembered so fondly – it’s worth noting that the Black Knights encountered a number of programs at just the right time.
Army defeated Tulane in that 2010 season. The Green Wave had not yet reached a bowl game – they were two years away from making the coaching change (to Curtis Johnson) which enabled them to make the 2013 New Orleans Bowl against Louisiana-Lafayette.
The Black Knights also defeated Duke in 2010. The Blue Devils had not yet begun their renaissance under David Cutcliffe. Had Army played 2013 or 2014 Duke, chances are it would not have prevailed. In 2010, though, the Black Knights were a better team than the Blue Devils, who went just 3-9.
A third victim of the Brave Old Army Team in 2010 was Kent State. The Golden Flashes have not been good the past few years, but you might recall that under coach Darrell Hazell (who is now at Purdue), Kent State came within one late defensive stop of playing in the 2013 Orange Bowl instead of Northern Illinois. NIU needed to exhaust every last resource and opportunity to nip Hazell’s Kent State team in the 2012 MAC Championship Game.
You can see that Army met a number of programs under ideal circumstances, at least when viewed from a more distant and all-encompassing vantage point. These are the kinds of details upon which a special college football season is built. However, the 2010 journey would not have remained so special in Army history without a victory in the Armed Forces Bowl against SMU.
It bears mentioning that Army was playing a de facto road game in that bowl. The Armed Forces Bowl is typically played on the TCU campus, at Amon Carter Stadium, but that ballpark was being renovated in 2010. The game moved to the SMU campus and Gerald J. Ford Stadium (no, not the former President; that’s Gerald R. Ford). It was as though, after catching several opponents under favorable conditions, Army had to endure an adverse setup for its bowl game if it wanted to produce a winning (7-6) season.
It was then that we saw the Black Knights’ resilience and determination, the hallmarks of that 2010 team.
Very little about that Armed Forces Bowl was elegant. The Black Knights scored one offensive touchdown. Trent Steelman completed two passes. Army was outgained by more than 180 yards (413-229). The team was shut out in the second half and scored a total of three points over the final 50 minutes of the game. Given all of those game details, one would have thought SMU would cruise.
Instead, Army’s defense – which scored one touchdown on a 55-yard Josh McNary return and picked off SMU quarterback Kyle Padron twice – held the fort. Army’s defense was a rock inside its own 25-yard line throughout the game, allowing just one score when SMU got that far down the field. The Black Knights, at one point, denied SMU points on three straight drives inside the Army 30. The Mustangs did pull within two points, 16-14, with 9:20 left, but the Black Knights never allowed the big play to the Ponies the rest of the way. When SMU reached the Army 30 with just over four minutes left, the Black Knights got the stop they absolutely had to have; otherwise, SMU probably would have been able to set up a chip-shot field goal. By forcing a 47-yard kick in windy conditions, Army gave itself good odds of retaining the lead. Sure enough, SMU kicker Matt Szymanski missed, and West Point stood close to the finish line.
Then came one of the best non-scoring drives in Army history. Steelman converted a third-and-five with a six-yard run. Later, on third and four, Steelman made great use of his second completed pass of the day. He threw a 22-yard strike which – in light of the fact that SMU had no timeouts – sealed the victory. Army didn’t look pretty… it looked like the stronger and more resourceful team.
It looked like a winner.
Fighting an uphill battle. Needing to create turnovers in order to win… and then doing so. Overcoming offensive limitations. These are still the kinds of things Army football has to do to win. The 2010 managed to get the job done. It’s a hope-filled example for the 2015 team to follow.