So with all that aside, does the 52-21 loss to Louisville really rate as a failure? Does it really represent a discouraging start to a new era filled with excitement and promise?
How about the fact that, before Louisville's depth overwhelmed the Black Knights in the final 20 minutes, Army was able to stay within striking distance at a spread of 17 points? All too many times last season, Army lost games by 20 that had been 35-point affairs before garbage time. On this occasion, Army was much more competitive through the first two and a half quarters, giving way late instead of folding the tent early.
Much more important is the fact that Army turned the ball over just once, an extremely impressive display of ball security from a team that killed itself with turnovers one season before. On a college football Saturday when huge favorites--such as Oregon and Nebraska-- lost ballgames simply because they couldn't protect the pigskin, Army needed Louisville to cough up the ball to win. But the fact that the Cards didn't oblige should not obscure the reality that Army, for its part, succeeded fabulously in improving its turnover ratio. Ten more games with just one turnover, and Army will win three or four of them, making 2004 a substantial step in the right direction.
As for penalties, that was surely a disappointment, with 10 flags littering the Michie Stadium turf. However, a number of those penalties were holding penalties, the result of being physicallly overwhelmed and overpowered by Louisville's plainly superior and beefier linemen. The penalties related to mental errors need to be weeded out, but the penalties related to disadvantages in the trenches will linger with Army for the duration of the season. The point is that the 10 penalties should not be overly alarming, given the disparity in strength the Cadets' interior linemen will face throughout the rest of 2004.
All in all, when you look at how this team competed and protected the ball against a physically superior team that had the added advantage of a previous game under its belt, the 52-21 score is deceptive. Once again, if Army can continue to average one turnover a game, good things will definitely happen this season.
Putting this Louisville loss in the rearview mirror--all while learning from it (and there's a ton to learn when a good team shows you how it's done)--will enable the Black Knights to look forward to a game that suddenly seems a lot more winnable than it did before the season started. This upcoming Saturday, Army tackles Houston, a team that performed gallantly in the Hawaii Bowl under the leadership of then-freshman quarterback Kevin Kolb. But in 2004, the Cougars don't have the look of a bowl team. Before getting manhandled by Oklahoma this past Saturday (a lot of teams surely will, so that doesn't reflect poorly on Houston), the Cougars couldn't even get past lowly Rice, losing 10-7 in an extremely disappointing performance. If Army can simply avoid beating itself, giving away no cheap points or short fields, the Cadets will go down to the wire with the Cougars, with an even-money shot at victory. All the things that didn't seem to pay off that much in this past Saturday's 31-point loss to the Cardinals will show up a lot more on the scoreboard this upcoming Saturday. Doing the things they did against a top-25 team, Army was about 17-20 points worse than Louisville, before the Cardinals widened the lead simply because of attrition. Doing those same things against Houston, a team nowhere close to the Cards in terms of both quality and depth, will translate into an even ballgame, and a great shot at a .500 record after two games.
Some might look at this Louisville opener as a failure. But in considering the biggest bug-a-boos of 2003, Army football has already made significant progress. If week one positives are carried over to week two against Houston, this lid-lifting loss will be fondly remembered as the learning experience that enabled the Bobby Ross era to take shape in a positive way.