Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Inconvenient Hope: Army's Improved Situation

People in and around West Point -- with good reason -- are tired of hearing about moral victories. There have been too many of them to count over the years. Yet, a quick look around the college football landscape would suggest that Army did obtain at least something of a moral victory against Penn State. The key point is to make use of it, instead of squandering it.


At least, I’m sure that’s what many Army fans said and thought and felt after Saturday’s “almost” outcome at Penn State, a 20-14 loss in which the Black Knights had the ball late in the game with a chance to win. No one has to explain why moral victories should be kept at a distance, treated with suspicion, and generally not be accorded any more significance or applause than they truly deserve.

Yet, after this performance by Army’s defense in Happy Valley, what else should be the primary reaction? That this team couldn’t get it done again? That the offense has now lost a couple of slugfests in which just a few extra plays could have made everything different? Placing the primary emphasis on one or both of those points seems out of tune with the moment and the status of this program. It’s still just a little too early in Jeff Monken’s tenure to insist that Army should be – if not a finished product – a dramatically better one compared to when Monken took over. A quick look at some other second-year coaches in the United States should suffice in the attempt to underscore this basic claim.

Chris Petersen, at the University of Washington, is finding out how difficult it is to take an entrenched culture of mediocrity and turn it into something excellent (or at least well above average). Washington is no longer the bottom-of-the-barrel program it became several years ago under Tyrone Willingham, but Steve Sarkisian did not transform Washington into a power; he merely brought it back to a modest level of performance. The Huskies were no longer terrible or even subpar. They were at least average. Yet, they didn’t remotely approach the label of “very good” or “extremely sound.” 

Petersen was brought aboard to catapult Washington to that higher plateau, and five weeks into his second season, the former Boise State boss is seeing how slowly the earth shifts (if at all). He’s recruiting well, and there are some small signs of improved player development, but the larger project does not yet have the results to show for it, and almost certainly won’t get those results over the next two months. Petersen might be able to take a few steps forward, but a dramatic improvement in Seattle doesn’t seem likely in either 2015 or 2016. It’s probably not until 2017 when Washington can first expect to be a prime contender in the Pac-12… and that requires advancements in 2016, advancements that have to begin to emerge this season. It’s not easy to turn around an operation in two years. Most coaches aren’t gifted with a Harbaugh- or Saban-like power to work wonders within a two-year window.

Steve Sarkisian had a built-in recruiting advantage at USC, but with Notre Dame, Oregon, Utah, and UCLA (among others) on the schedule, the Trojans have to do a lot of heavy lifting if they want to enjoy a season commensurate with the expectations they faced at the start of September. A loss at home to Stanford has already reduced USC’s margin for error. Sarkisian, working with a lot more resources, hasn’t been able to engineer a quick fix.

The best example of how a second-year coach, like the program he runs, has to be granted more patience is Charlie Strong. Unlike Army, Texas has a highly disorganized athletic department, one scrambling to mend the fences that were toppled and broken by former athletic director Steve Patterson. Players are fighting (verbally and emotionally) with each other. Chaos includes the locker room at Texas but goes far beyond it as well. Only a superstar coach might (might!) have been able to put Texas in a better situation at this point. Strong needs a lot more time (two more seasons beyond this one) in order to be fairly evaluated as the would-be problem-solver of a massive mess in Texas. If he gets anything less, it will be up to someone else to clean up a problem, and the cycle of trying to re-organize Texas football will begin again. 

This brief survey of other second-year coaches should enable an observer to look at Army in a wider context and see that the program is showing signs of revival. Yes, Texas seemed to have revived itself a few weeks ago with a 45-44 loss to California in which the offense finally played well against a good opponent. Now, that game doesn’t seem like such a hopeful moment – it is a moral victory whose value was promptly discarded. 

Naturally, Army can’t latch onto the idea of a moral victory too tightly, but after holding Penn State’s offense under 275 yards in a road game, Army should feel that it moved forward as a program. The Black Knights have traveled many miles since their opening-night loss to Fordham. The defense is night-and-day different from that point in time. A week after playing a 58-36 game, the ability of the defense to stand so tall not only recalls the excellent defensive performance last December against Navy; it also suggests that Army can continue to play – and compete well in – defensive battles.

The team’s next opponent, Duke, is likely to produce that very kind of game flow in week six.


Duke rushed for only 33 yards last weekend against Boston College. The Blue Devils finished with under 230 yards but managed to win because they held the Eagles to only seven points. Army’s ability to hold Penn State to 20 points feels so encouraging because the Black Knights should be able to do an equally good job against Duke. The Blue Devils are limited on offense, as Penn State was and is. Coach David Cutcliffe has a quarterback, Thomas Sirk, who has struggled the past three weeks. If Army’s close loss to Wake Forest felt like a giveaway, since Wake’s starting quarterback got injured in that game, this loss to Penn State feels different – partly because it was a road game, and partly because it gives Army the template it needs heading into the duel with Duke.

One doesn’t need to create too much of a ruckus in response to the idea that Army won a moral victory against Penn State. The main thing is to use this “almost-win” as a springboard to a win over a Duke team which is 4-1… but extremely vulnerable.

If Army loses this next game by a 20-14 score, you can bet there won’t be any talk about a moral victory. For now, though, this team does seem to be getting tougher and more resilient. If it can keep those qualities for the rest of the season, Jeff Monken will have something good on his hands. Top Stories