When losing defines the culture of a program, the biggest hurdle to overcome is the hurdle within, the voice that questions whether or not your own self and your own team are really good enough to compete at a high level. On a beautiful night at Michie Stadium, Army football—once and for all—should have put to rest the question of whether or not it can compete with college football's best.
Sure, Iowa State read some press clippings and felt quite overconfident after smoking highly-regarded Iowa a few weeks ago. But that mattered little to a Brave Old Army Team who outplayed, outhustled and outhit the Cyclones for the better part of the first three quarters of play. Army wasn't just lucking out all night long, benefiting from Iowa State mistakes; sure, there was the dropped bomb that turned into a Ray Stith interception in the second quarter, but that was the exception that proves the rule. For the balance of play, Army was running down ISU quarterback Bret Meyer and showing a combination of tremendous pursuit and lateral movement that had been absent in the BC game and only occasionally on display against Baylor. The Cadets' defense was legitimately sticking, stuffing and stopping the Cyclones all night long, often keeping ISU scoreless even when the visitors from the Big XII started drives in Army territory. Without that unfortunate, split-second incidental face mask penalty from Cameron Craig in the fourth quarter, Army very possibly wins this game outright. The Black Knights' defense was that good throughout the evening.
On offense, the continuing presence of a number of rough edges can't take away the fact that at times, Army's passing game was genuinely devastating. Zac Dahman had moments when he couldn't miss, and the 19-yard touchdown pass to Scott Wesley in the first quarter was executed just the way it was drawn up in a textbook. That scoring play was as letter perfect as is humanly possible. Army found new plateaus of excellence in execution.
But even more than pure performance, the outstanding feature of this valiant battle—which nearly toppled the Big XII Northern Division's early-season favorite—was the fact that Army's players, up and down the line, clearly sold out and maxed out on every play. You could tell just how much effort was being expended, how much care was being invested, how much pride was being displayed on each snap. For the defense to have held the fort as long as it did—essentially beating ISU on that fateful 4th and 2, only for a cheap (though correctly called) penalty to bail out the Cyclones—was nothing short of amazing. For Dahman and the offense to ring up three touchdowns was an extremely impressive indication of the growth of a quarterback and his teammates.
Seeing this effort, one could readily appreciate why Bobby Ross had his hands behind his head so often on the sidelines, especially as the lead slipped away in the fourth quarter. You knew Army's coach wanted this huge upset victory—not for himself, but for his kids who so clearly worked to be all that they could be. Ross had to realize how his boys gave it 200 percent on a night that gave great honor and glory to West Point football. His agony was an agony that masked great pride in a bunch of young men who grew up enormously before a national television audience... and who now know that they can compete with the big boys on very even terms.
The best game of the Bobby Ross era at Army might not have been a win on the scoreboard, but given the confidence this performance will generate throughout the program, wins are sure to follow this season... perhaps in numbers bigger than expected back in August.