You can refer to Al Pacino's character in "Any Given Sunday," or Lou Saban or Sam Rutigliano in any of the famous NFL Films sound clips from decades past. You can cite any number of cliches or endlessly worn football truisms to express Army's challenge against Air Force this Saturday in the Rocky Mountains. Go ahead. You know what the key to this game is, as do the Falcons: Get the toughest, most important yards.
When Army lost to Rice, a team which racked up 378 rushing yards was not given the chance to get the two rushing yards which would have mattered most, the two yards which -- if attained -- would have put the Black Knights in front of the Owls and given West Point its best chance of winning. That's in the past, and nothing can be done about it. What can be done is that those two unattained yards can be gained -- time and again -- in Colorado Springs on the occasion of this Commander-In-Chief's Trophy tussle. Army's unfinished business against Rice, with the bitter taste it created, can now be transferred -- at full force -- to the Falcons, the team which stands in the way of CIC glory, the team which has won eight of the last nine contests against the Black Knights.
For most of this game, Army must rely on what it does best: Read the play, carry out the assignment, and run the ball from the base offense Jeff Monken oversees. Army has to spend 95 percent of this game winning battles and simply imposing the fundamentals of its offense on every Air Force defender. In almost all cases, Army must make Air Force feel the weight of its West Point presence. The Falcons must be made to realize just how difficult a day they'll have to endure if they want to achieve sweet victory. There's not a lot of mystery attached to the bulk of this game.
What's even more true is that these fundamentals of football -- blocking and angles and smart reads at the point of attack -- must emerge in especially sharp detail in the red zone, the area of the field where the dream died against Rice, where this team, given a golden opportunity to change the trajectory of its season for the better, was not able to pull through... because its coach opted for the field goal, a tie game, and the safe route. Monken can't change his decision, but this is the kind of situation which can make everyone in a locker room rededicate himself to blocking a little bit harder, to fighting for leverage with just a pinch more persistence.
This is the stuff of Any Given Sunday -- YA GOTTA FIGHT FOR THAT INCH! It's corny and cliched, and you've heard it a million times in football over the decades, but it really represents what Army has to achieve in red-zone and short-yardage situations on Saturday. Without this ability to get (as the Australians call them) "hard yards," it's immensely difficult to see Army emerging from Colorado Springs with a shot at the CIC Trophy five weeks later against Navy.
This might seem so obvious, even stale. You're not wrong to think as much if that's the case. Let it be known that when you're 1-8 against Air Force and even more unsuccessful against Navy in recent CIC Series games, it's hard to reinvent the wheel and identify nuanced, off-the-beaten-path game keys. What's worth emphasizing here is that this game represents an opportunity for Army to not only master high-leverage situations, but do so from a place of disappointment.
That doesn't seem like a stale and typical angle, but what does that mean, precisely?
Here's the explanation:
When teams are in that "learning how to win" phase -- Army certainly qualifies as an example -- we (as fans and as pundits; both are part of this dynamic) tend to think that the team in question will succeed only after it has tasted success. "Team A pulled through in Situation B last week. Therefore, it will have confidence heading into next week."
Right? This is how most of us process football and winning, at least when we discuss emotions and mindsets and those intangibles which are part of a changed culture at a program.
Army has to play Air Force after NOT winning one of those grow-up games with a grow-up moment at the Rice 2-yard line. Everything we think we know about football and belief and confidence points to Army losing this game. Yet, therein lies the opportunity for Jeff Monken and his offense: Being able to use disappointment as a motivator -- and to not allow it to crush the spirit of this team, in the latter stages of a season before a huge moment -- could be the very thing which paradoxically liberates and then transforms the Black Knights. If Army had gone for that fourth and goal at the 2 and converted it, we'd be saying how much of a high the Black Knights are experiencing as they go to Colorado for this game. Instead, we're talking about how Army has to be better, with a less optimistic tone. That's the difference in how winning and losing shape perspectives, even when the margin between one outcome and the other is as thin as a Swedish silver-dollar pancake.
What if, though, Army can derive improvement from disappointment? It works against our typical understanding of how programs change. Yes, bad seasons do give way to better seasons. Teams do bounce back from disappointment in the context of years, turning 2014's heartbreak into 2015's breakthrough. It's much more difficult (and rare) for teams to absorb multiple disappointments within one season and then completely remake themselves in that same season.
That is what Army will try to achieve against Air Force.
If the Black Knights can pull it off, Monken will have the kind of happy moment which could then set the table for the Navy game and 2016 in a perfect way. West Point would own the kind of transformational experience which could indeed open the portal to prosperity on the banks of the Hudson.
Zoning in the red zone -- offense first, but also on defense -- is the most immediate and obvious game key for Army on Saturday. That's not a secret. The emotional drama of pulling off such a feat from a place of disappointment is the fascinating challenge staring Army in the face. Should the Black Knights rise to this challenge, we could stumble upon a resurrection narrative in the history of Army football... just when we least expected it.