Keeping the Tank Full

How appropriate that the key for Army's final game of 2004, the showdown with Navy in Philadelphia, focuses on a tank. No, not a person nicknamed "Tank," but the collective mental and emotional tank of the entire roster of Cadets who will strap on the pads against the boys from Annapolis.

Blessedly, the Black Knights of the Hudson will play another game after an off week this season, more than a month since the last time they faced such a scenario. But unlike their Oct. 30 contest at East Carolina, the Navy game's position on the calendar is just right for Army. If there was ever a good time to have a bye before facing the Midshipmen, this year has provided it.

When Bobby Ross' team played those pesky Pirates in the Carolinas at the end of October, the bye week that preceded the game was the worst thing that possibly could have happened to Army. The Black Knights had just won back-to-back games over Cincinnati and South Florida, had their running game clicking on all cylinders, and had found levels of resilience and endurance unseen in their previous four games. At 2-4, the last thing Army needed was a bye week, but that's exactly what they got as they headed into Greenville, and sure enough, a sluggish group of West Pointers never got untracked in a game that got away from the Cadets.

Ever since that contest, Army has done just enough to lose each weekend, with one side of the ball not being able to complement the other. Against Air Force and UAB, the offense faltered significantly, especially in the second half; against East Carolina and Tulane, the defense gave way. However you look at it, Army's tank has been running on fumes of late, as the grind of big-time football—and the enormity of the task of putting together a complete game—have taken their toll on Bobby Ross' hard-working but drained ballclub.

In 2005, one should not expect Army Football to hit a wall, but at the end of this, the first season of the Ross era in West Point, that wall has been hit and hit hard. With the Cadets tired and losing games, the bye week before Navy couldn't have come at a more beneficial or opportune time. Not only do the Black Knights get a chance to heal up from four straight weeks of gridiron combat; they also gain six more days in which to mentally prepare for the biggest game of their lives, the game they'll share with their grandkids 40 years from now.

So when a national TV audience looks at Lincoln Financial Field this Saturday on CBS, the Xs and Os will obviously have their appropriately significant place in deciding the outcome of this venerated college football classic. But if you really want to get a feel for the Cadets' ability to win this contest against their bowl-bound adversary, look at how Army's players conduct themselves in the first five minutes of the game.

It's been noted on more than one occasion over the years that teams entering hugely emotional contests fare better when they expend less energy in the pre-game and early-game moments, saving their emotional tanks for key make-or-break situations that occur later on in the game. There have been a number of occasions in which Florida State has, in effect, lost to Miami in the Orange Bowl before the opening kickoff by jumping around in the tunnel or on the sidelines. By simply wasting too much energy, the Seminoles—come the fourth quarter—would find themselves much more tired than they ever suspected they'd be: that extra lack of freshness came back to haunt Bobby Bowden's boys in a big way.

Yes, it should be conceded in the midst of all this that there's no question Army will benefit from a huge adrenaline rush against its archrival. The key, though, is to make the most of that adrenaline rush, which will serve to reduce—if not eliminate—the advantage Navy might possess over Army in the trenches. If an underdog can't maximize a huge emotional or otherwise intangible advantage on the scoreboard, its chances of winning evaporate right then and there. To illustrate this reality with a recent example, Alabama played 25 possessed minutes against a superior Auburn team on Nov. 20, but led by only six points. As soon as the second half started, Auburn asserted its dominance, and the Tide's upset bid was history.

Saturday against Navy, Army doesn't have to be sky-high coming out of the locker room. The event itself will take care of the emotions, anyway.

What Army will need to do is execute so crisply and precisely in the first quarter that Navy's defense will have to respect the many looks Bobby Ross will throw at the Midshipmen. If a bunch of keyed-up Cadets can actually channel their nervous energy into a top-flight first-quarter performance, a tone will be set for the contest that will put Navy on its heels. Just as importantly, Army would stand to have more left in the emotional tank come the fourth quarter. Draining the emotional tank in the first quarter would be a complete waste of time… unless, that is, Bobby Ross' boys could storm out to a 30-point lead. Then again, what are the chances of that happening?

The Cadets will want to start steadily against Navy and then slowly build to an emotional crescendo in the fourth quarter, staying in a close game and then allowing their confidence to take over. If Tielor Robinson and the boys are to run over their rivals from Annapolis, the tank will need to be taken care of—and left with plenty of emotional fuel in the fourth quarter. If Bobby Ross wants to cap an already productive year with a really huge splash, he'll ride his horses gently and save them for a huge finishing kick that will knock Navy's billy goat into next Tuesday. Top Stories