Don't Give an Inch? Just Don't Give, Period

In the volatile world of college sports (it applies to all sports, not just football), where 19-year-old testosterone-drenched male members of the human species battle it out, so much can be gained by not giving away cheap points. At a level of competition not as elite, polished or demanding as the pro ranks, the margin for error is greater. College athletic teams can get away with more, can be sloppy and still win, can make mistakes and yet not get killed.

Just look at the Sugar Bowl, where an LSU team that left a ton of points on the field was still able to turn back an Oklahoma team that was even less airtight.

If there's a key element to Army football in 2004 from a strategic standpoint, then, it is the matter of not being sloppy. That has to be priority number one in the Bobby Ross era.

Let's be clear about some things in a brutally honest way: Army's cupboard is pretty bare, and the talent base isn't up to par with most other programs. The Black Knights won't be fielding a tremendously talented team in '04, and no one's expecting as much. What's also undeniable is that, as much heart as Army will show (and the guess is that this Army team will fight on, and bravely so, throughout the whole season, from the first kickoff of the first game to the final gun of the Navy contest), the Cadets will be at a disadvantage in the trenches. In terms of speed and muscle, quickness and power, Army will be in trouble.

Sounds really grim, doesn't it?

But then consider this: being sloppy and being overwhelmed or undermanned are hardly the same. Teams can be sound, yet get blasted by physically superior teams. On the other side of the coin, teams can be sloppy, yet win because of the great margin for error that exists in college football and other college sports. Moreover, being sloppy often suggests that a team has the athleticism and skill needed to put itself in position to make plays, only for a lack of soundness to gum up those potential gamebreakers. Sloppiness and soundness actually exist on some occasions as outright opposites, or at least as largely contrasting qualities—they're hardly similar at all.

For an Army team that, in 2003, committed six turnovers against Air Force and threw three damaging picks against Louisville (among many other turnover-filled performances), the first priority on offense in this new season has to be ball security. For all the times turnovers devastated the Black Knights last year, one has to ask this simple question: what if the Black Knights—admittedly, not being tremendously talented, up and down the line—had simply taken care of the ball and not given away any cheap or easy points? Suddenly, the East Carolina and Cincinnati games become contests the Black Knights could have, even should have, managed to win. The mere reality of not giving up extra points, of not committing mistakes when so many other college football teams regularly litter the field with miscues, would win a game or two for Army in 2004, just as doing the same would have paid dividends for the Cadets in '03, against the Pirates and Bearcats.

Army will get overpowered and overwhelmed on a number of occasions in 2004—there's no shame, and moreover, no inaccuracy, in simply admitting that up front. How many times that happens is up for debate, but it will happen on a few occasions. It falls to Bobby Ross to emphasize ball security, so that the games in which Army plays an opponent evenly will be games that Army will win in the fourth quarter.

In the end, forget all the emotional or dramatic elements of the upcoming 2004 season, and all the attendant metaphors about fighting hard like good soldiers… yes, aside of those theatrical dimensions, what will matter more than "not giving an inch" is simply not giving—not giving up the pigskin. That one improvement, if it can be made, will jack up Army's win total, not to mention the morale of the program. In some very insecure times, a reliance on security—ball security—will put Army in good stead in 2004.


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