1996 Army Football: A Commanding View
Ever since the Air Force Academy made the 1971 Sugar Bowl against Tennessee, the three FBS (then called Division I-A) service academies have never been able to return to a premium bowl, a game which confers a maximum amount of prestige on a program. The realistic goals for academy teams these days are bowl games, wins in the biggest rivalry games, and ownership of the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy.
Army is the academy program which has found it hardest to win this valuable trophy. Air Force launched its ascendancy in the 1989 season, winning seven straight CIC trophies through the 1995 season. More recently, Navy uncorked a seven-CIC streak from 2003 through 2009. It's been hard for Army to elbow its way into the CIC conversation ever since the end of the 1988 season, when the Cadets (now the Black Knights) won their third academy championship in the span of five seasons. There was only one occasion since 1988 when Army has looked down on its brothers in Colorado Springs and Annapolis...
... but boy, was it ever sweet.
Army did defeat its foremost rivals in 1996, but what it also did is that it quieted its critics. While it's true that Army sealed its CIC win with a resolute and poised performance in a 28-24 win over Navy on Dec. 7 of 1996, the most impressive performance of that season came a month earlier against Air Force. This, in many ways, was the moment when Army gained the belief that would carry the team through the Navy game and to the lofty height of a 10-win season, the first and only time a West Point team has registered such a magnificent feat.
Why was this 1996 win over Air Force so satisfying, beyond the fact that it led to the CIC mountaintop and busted up the Falcons' seven-year reign as Commander-in-Chief's Trophy owners? You have to appreciate the 1996 season and how it unfolded up to that point -- Saturday, November 9, 1996.
Army's schedule up to that point in time had been soft, and there's no point in trying to deny or minimize that point. Army had not yet been placed in the Associated Press top 25 because of the lack of strength in the team's schedule.
Yes, many of the teams Army played in the first eight games of the 1996 season -- Ohio, Duke, North Texas, Miami of Ohio, and Rutgers -- would become a lot better in subsequent years. However, at the time, those teams comprised a fairly tame 1996 slate. When Army went up against the latest edition of coach Fisher DeBerry's Falcons from Colorado Springs -- which had defeated a Lou Holtz-coached Notre Dame team just a month earlier -- it was entirely reasonable to think that the academy colossus of the decade was going to do what it had done the past seven seasons. All the burden of proof rested on Army's heavy shoulders. It was up to the Black Knights to change the conversation.
So urgent was the moment in Michie Stadium that General Norman Schwarzkopf gave the day-before pep talk to the team. Pep talks don't ensure victory, though. Coming from generals or coaches or both, the players still have to execute the plan, and Army coach Bob Sutton needed to give his defense a winning edge.
Accounts of that game bring up the point that Army's linebackers lined up in wide splits and backed off the line of scrimmage, doing anything but crowding Air Force quarterback Beau Morgan, the latest in a long line of fine wishbone signal callers under DeBerry. The look clearly confused Morgan, who thought that he had to give the ball to the fullback or his pitch man in the face of such an alignment. However, Army's linebackers -- partly as a result of being removed from the line of scrimmage -- were able to freely move to spots and angle off Air Force blockers. They got around their Falcon counterparts and made tackles quickly. Morgan finished with only 6 yards on 11 carries. Air Force had been averaging just over 35 points per game, but the Falcons couldn't begin to figure out Army's defense on that Saturday.
It's not as though Army cruised, as well as its defense played. What makes this performance so impressive is that the Black Knights led by only six points (13-7) early in the fourth quarter, with their defense having to hang on to preserve a small lead. The defense was not stopping Air Force when leading by three touchdowns -- it was so much easier to contain the Falcons in situations when Morgan had to pass. Air Force still could have run the ball when down by only six, but Army relentlessly stopped the Falcons. The Black Knights conceded only 69 rushing yards to Air Force for the whole game.
Having applied the clamps on defense throughout the day, Army just needed a small pinch of offense with that 13-7 fourth-quarter lead. The defense, though, set up the offense and made the day's biggest play. Safety Jerrold Tyquiengco picked off Morgan and gave the Black Knights the ball at the Air Force 35. A field goal would have been enough to create a two-score lead, but fullback Joe Hewitt blasted into the end zone to complete that short-field drive. Army led, 20-7, and Air Force never got off the mat in response.
This was one of the all-time great defensive performances for West Point football. The plan, the physicality, the agility in getting off blocks -- everything about the Black Knights' defense was letter perfect. Air Force lacked a sufficient adjustment, and Army didn't merely win as a result; the Black Knights wore down Air Force. They prevailed tactically, but also in an attritional sense as well. There's no more satisfying way to win a game than to slowly but surely establish and then affirm your superiority over the full 60 minutes, grinding your tough-guy military-academy opponent into so much fine powder.
You don't get to the 10-win plateau for the only time in school history without being uncommonly tough. That's what the 1996 Army football team was, especially on that unforgettable afternoon against Air Force.
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