Has the door been unlocked?
In college football, teams rarely escape the reality of a comparison. .
Oh, sure, you did that against Team X, but you haven’t yet shown you can do the same against Team Y, and let’s not even discuss an opponent at the level of Team Z.
Those comparisons and tendencies will never go away as long as this sport is played, and from a coldly analytical standpoint, there’s nothing fundamentally wrong or misguided in pointing out the need for a team to prove itself by beating a higher level of competition.
Yet, as reasonable and understandable as that line of analysis often is, it can acquire limits, just as any other line of thought or argumentation. Yes, Army didn’t beat a giant in college football. It didn’t even beat a middleweight in Ypsilanti, Michigan. That middleweight team is next on the schedule, in the form of the Penn State Nittany Lions. Before the scene shifts to Penn State, however, let’s pause and acknowledge the achievement the Black Knights forged. First, it’s worth noting for its own sake and on its own terms. Second, it could cut against the natural tendency to make comparisons and associations across the sprawling 128-team landscape of the Football Bowl Subdivision.
Obviously, Army has not “arrived” because of its 58-36 win over Eastern Michigan in week four. It would be foolish to make such a pronouncement based on one result against a team which has struggled for most of the season… and the past 10 years. Eastern Michigan did score a 48-29 win earlier this season, but that win came against a Wyoming program which is cratering right now, and has clearly fallen below New Mexico to the very bottom of what is a decidedly weak Mountain West Conference in 2015. No one’s awarding Army a medal for beating Eastern Michigan, but there IS a point to be made about what Jeff Monken’s team did in the Upper Midwest on Saturday.
When you realize how favorable a situation Army had a week earlier against Wake Forest, with the Demon Deacons losing their number one quarterback due to injury and having to throw a replacement into the fire (one who threw two interceptions against the Black Knights), the inability of Army’s offense to consistently score, especially in the second half, stood out in the worst possible way. Moreover, this Wake Forest defense – the one which contained Army to a considerable extent – got pushed around by Indiana the following week. Indiana might be 4-0, but the Hoosiers beat an FCS team by one point before handling Florida International and Wake by small margins as well. (The Hoosiers’ narrow win over Western Kentucky is an indisputably great result, regardless of margin.)
The loss to Wake – in itself, but especially under the circumstances – was immensely disappointing. That’s a defense Army should have been able to do more against. That performance on Sept. 19 suggested that the Black Knights might have been able to score in the high 30s at best against Eastern Michigan, and would probably score fewer points than that. This 58-point explosion – chiefly, the 22-point fourth quarter when game pressure existed at its height – was not expected. If you claim that it was, I’ll bet you had this nice piece of swampland in New Mexico to sell me as well.
Even when taking the opponent into account, then, Army busted through with a quality performance. That it was strong in the fourth quarter as well as the first half, and was powered by two quarterbacks instead of merely one (A.J. Schurr and the injured Ahmad Bradshaw, with Schurr filling in and getting the job done in the second half after Bradshaw left), speaks to a degree of growth and development we hadn’t yet seen on offense this season. This was, indisputably, not merely “normal business,” but a welcome step forward for the team.
Might this step forward be followed by a step backward against Penn State? Of course it might. Yet, in the process of building a program, that’s how evolution occurs. Learning how to walk involves forward and backward steps. What had been a progression of solely backward steps has now been accompanied by a positive movement. It might not be sustained, but the coaching staff can now teach players from a positive vantage point – “This is what you did well – let’s continue to do that! - rather than a negative one (“This is what we have to avoid next week.” )
This is how teams grow. They might not be ready to take two consecutive steps forward. They might not be ready to beat a team such as Penn State after clobbering Eastern Michigan. However, by clobbering Eastern Michigan, they have at least invited the possibility of continued upward growth and have made this game against the Nittany Lions a lot more (legitimately) interesting.
Consider this important point as well: While Army obviously has to show it can flourish on offense against tougher opposition, the first step in getting better as an offense is (this is deceptively simple here…) GETTING BETTER. Showing you can perform well against Eastern Michigan would seem to be a prerequisite for expecting a competitive outing against James Franklin’s team. Army’s offensive unit can now visualize what cleanly-executed plays look like. Every player in that offensive huddle can now operate from a mindset of, “This is no longer some elusive image or idea – we’ve done this. We can now go about the task of doing it again.”
Do comparisons matter in college football? Without question.
Sometimes, though, merely being able to execute at an ideal level – even if against a weaker opponent – can elicit all sorts of wonderful progressions in terms of confidence, establishing better habits, being more decisive in carrying out plays, everything a team and an offense need to be successful.
Has the door been unlocked for this offense? The answer might be no, but the mere asking of the question – combined with the question’s newfound legitimacy – offers evidence that real growth is occurring in West Point. At this stage of the program’s evolution, that’s all one can really ask for in the present moment.
Let’s see where it leads this upcoming Saturday.
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