In that sense, then, Saturday's game against Navy marked a clear forward step in the evolution of Army football.
There was no letdown in the middle 20 minutes of play. The pronounced midgame collapse didn't happen. The effort level remained strong, the intensity high, the spirits upbeat. For 50 minutes, the Black Knights showed the kind of grit and hustle that, if reduplicated in every 2007 game, will serve them very well. A fifty-minute fight is a lot better than what Army has shown in previous Navy games, and that has to raise hopes somewhat in West Point.
The next step in Army's evolution? Taking 50 minutes against Navy and now turning them into 60.
And even on that score, Army can't be faulted for failing to be competitive. If one wanted to measure Army's levels of sweat and struggle in this game, the Black Knights actually kept fighting until the end. The problem was that when Carson Williams and the rest of the offense began to feel the heat in the game's final ten minutes, the pressure proved to be too much. A passing game that could never find much of anything downfield--and which couldn't make timely plays when the moment demanded them--was unsurprisingly ill-equipped to stretch the field and come up with a game-tying touchdown in the final ten minutes of play. This lack of resources and weaponry on offense led to interceptions that translated into Navy's late twelve-point run. Without the pressure of the fourth quarter, one got the sense that with Navy quarterback Kaipo Noa Kaheaku-Enhada struggling almost as much as Williams, the two teams could have remained in a 14-7 game for the three more hours, maybe even si x. Army's defense was sensational, and that fact should not be overlooked when assessing this game. After being blown off the field in past years, this Black Knight team stayed in the ring and lost on points instead of suffering a TKO halfway through the bout.
The real issue emerging from this game--amidst the quality of Army's defense and the generally sustained effort level--is the offensive system Bobby Ross wants to use. Navy has continuously shown under Paul Johnson that a triple option/wishbone-type offense is perfect for a service academy. Without imposing size or talent, service academies have to grow themselves with a better, more creative approach. It would be pretty stubborn--and/or naive--to think that Ross can win with a pro style offense alone. Maybe he can be Solomonic and split a baby in half, using some pro style and some shifty stuff on the order of what Jim Grobe used to win an ACC title at Wake Forest this season.
Something, somehow, someway, has to change on offense. That, in short, must be the main focus in an offseason at West Point that needs to acquire a heightened sense of urgency. If Navy is to be solved and defeated next year, Army's offense has to have the options needed to stretch and spread out a defense, thereby allowing for profitable lines of attack.
Oh, and the use of the word "options"? Depending on what you think, that may or may not be an intended pun. Army and Bobby Ross, however, must intend to get more production from the offensive side of the ball. That goal, if achieved, will finally enable this struggling program to turn the corner in 2007.