It's surprising, but in the most delightful way possible: after showing signs of life one week and disappearing the next in the first six games of the season, Army now seems to be rounding into form, displaying not just consistency, but an ability to do the things essential to winning games. Precisely at the time when Ross' second season in West Point was on the verge of spiraling out of control, everyone in the Army program—from Ross on down to every last player—has reached into the well and found a new level of hunger complemented with deeper attention to detail. As a result, wins are becoming more commonplace, with the presence of the University of Massachusetts offering hope of a three-game winning streak next weekend.
Against Akron, Army got a timely turnover that changed the course of the whole contest. Saturday in Colorado Springs, the Black Knights fashioned their hard-earned 27-24 triumph on the strength of a plus-two margin in the turnover category, with the game-sealing play coming on a fumble recovery near midfield by Army defensive end Brandon Thompson with just 55 ticks left in regulation. By forcing turnovers on defense while getting a steady, turnover-free performance from quarterback Zac Dahman, Army—with efficiency and not explosiveness—was able to turn the percentages in its favor. As long as Ross' team can continue to win the turnover battle, they'll remain extremely successful the rest of this season, and moreover, for the rest of the Ross era, however long it might ultimately last.
The other feature of the Air Force win that was similar to the Akron victory the week before was that Army didn't dominate in terms of yards or other statistical categories. The Black Knights were outgained by Air Force, but won because they made all the timely plays in this contest. When down 14-13, Army answered to take a 20-14 lead. When Air Force crept within three at 20-17, the Black Knights were able to counter with a touchdown for a two-possession lead at 27-17, thereby forcing the run-first Falcons to have to throw a little more. Whenever the moment required a key play from Army, the Black Knights were usually able to deliver... certainly more often than Air Force was. Therein lies another key to success that will always exist in the Ross era: it's not about raw dominance, but timeliness and significance of plays. As long as Army is winning more third and fourth downs than the opposition—and that's what happened on Saturday in Colorado Springs, with Army converting eight of those plays (six third-down conversions, two fourth-down) compared to Air Force's six (five third downs, one fourth)—chances are the boys from West Point will be extremely competitive.
Up and down the line, Army is making tangible improvements that seem to be sticking a little bit, as the players seem to be truly absorbing and retaining the lessons Boss Ross has taught them since he stepped onto the West Point campus two years ago. If the Black Knights can now manage to simply bottle up this proven formula they've discovered, U-Mass and other future opponents will be vanquished. 2005 could still be a special season in West Point before it's all said and done, and this Saturday's landmark win at Air Force showed why.
A team and program that have only glimpsed potential from a distance are now beginning to fulfill that potential. As the culture of Army's team locker room changes for the better, it's worth wondering just how much the joy of winning can elevate this program... and make it a factor in college football in years to come. For now, though, merely having a shot at the Commander-in-Chief Trophy is reward enough for an ascendant bunch of Army players who are flying high after soaring past the Air Force Academy.