The Last Hurdle

Something tells me you've heard it all before. West Point football is beyond hope, the experts say. Not just in the sense that the Black Knights have suffered through twelve straight losing seasons, but in the very real idea that the institution itself cannot support a winning football program.

The odds, they claim, are just too tall. It's 2009 after all, and the biggest and fastest high school athletes don't go to places that fail to offer "Early Childhood Development" as a field of study, nor do they subject themselves to the daily rigidity and discipline of an institution like West Point. Throw in the ever alluring chance to make millions at the next level, coupled with the recent and overwhelming success of Army's top two rivals, and you could write (and indeed, some have written) a veritable treatise on the subject of Army football futility in the 21st century.

I get it. I know West Point is not like every other school in the country, and I'm not blind to the fact that a return to national prominence probably surpasses even wishful thinking and instead borders on the truly outrageous. But that doesn't mean Army football can't still win, and it doesn't preclude Rich Ellerson from helping Army football win right now.

This is still college football after all, and there are still standards of winning and losing which pay no mind to recruiting rankings, schematic trends, and even the societal factors which have led every ‘Five Star' prospect in America to say "thanks, but no thanks" to Army over the past decade.

If you haven't already guessed, the standard which I am referring to (and the factor which I believe continues to be the last major hurdle for Army football) is turnover margin. Whether we are talking about the teams playing in the BCS National Title Game or referencing two high school JV squads, there is just no getting around the fact that when it comes to winning and losing, turnovers often play the deciding role.

Don't believe me? Still think talent, scheme, and size laugh in the face of the time-tested need to hold on to (and take away) the football? I wouldn't be so sure.

It's not like Army was a more talented team than Tulane was a season ago, nor did the Cadets dominate in the statistic department, giving up a 486-334 total yard edge to the Green Wave during the two teams' midseason encounter. Yet when it was all said and done it was Army's players who were the ones basking in the light of a 44-13 victory, in a concluding score which didn't exactly reflect any on-field ‘dominance' on their own part. What did it reflect? A +4 differential in turnovers that the Black Knights took advantage of, including a boost from two returns for touchdowns off of Green Wave miscues. A similar situation led to an Army upset over Arkansas State in 2005 when the Red Wolves imploded for six turnovers (compared to Army's single turnover) in a 38-10 Black Knight win.

Unfortunately for the Cadets, such situations have been few and far between over the past several seasons. Having run a double-digit negative turnover ratio in five of the past seven years, Army stands as truly one of the worst team at holding onto the football in all of college football.

The Black Knights don't exactly have a lot of company in their ongoing ball control miseries, with only one other team in the entire FBS coming into 2009 having equaled the notorious feat of three consecutive seasons with a double-digit turnover deficit. That team – North Texas – has gone a combined 6-30 over those three years. Coincidence? Good God, no.

While turnovers are often associated with luck, the ability to sustain a positive turnover margin has long been attached to a trend of coaching that stresses fundamentals and simplicity of design. This point is not without its fair share of examples. Look around at college football – specifically the teams which continue to have regular or semi-regular success despite having less talent than their conference foes. Wake Forest is the perfect illustration. The Deacons, who have been to three straight bowl games and have compiled a three year record of 28-12, were a respective +17 (2008), + 9 (2007), and +13 (2006) over the past three seasons. Conference rival Miami, which regularly finishes ahead of Wake Forest in the ACC recruiting rankings, went -10, -6, and -3 in turnovers in each of those three seasons, respectively. The lesson? Turnovers count.

Of course, you don't need to tell that to new Army head coach Rich Ellerson, who told me in a recent interview that he felt the "climb" his team faces this year may not be as steep as some people think, provided, of course, that they fix this whole turnover mess.

"Turnovers, and the ability to get them and the ability to take care of the football on the offensive side of the ball are fundamental to success," said Ellerson, as if channeling some sort of Sun Tzu equivalent of football knowledge. "You become great on the offensive side of the ball and you become great – not good but great - with the fundamentals associated with that kind of football."

He should obviously know. While Army's -41 turnover deficit over the last five years has been perhaps the single most conducive factor to the Black Knights and their on-field futility, Ellerson's Cal Poly Mustangs showed a trend of positive turnover margin throughout the coach's eight year tenure in San Luis Obispo. During that time, the Mustangs were +5.78 in turnovers on an average basis, with only one season (2007) seeing Ellerson's team finish the year with a turnover deficit (they were -2.) Likewise, coach Ellerson's teams proved to be incredibly efficient in not turning the ball over, with the 2008 squad finishing the year with the least turnovers lost in the entire country. Statistics like that, said Ellerson, aren't built out of luck alone, but rather a conscience effort to put the systems in place to protect the ball. Those systems, he said, are already being installed at Army.

"We are going to have great fundamentals associated with the football," said Ellerson. "We are going to take great pride in it, we are going to reinforce those fundamentals daily, and we are going to challenge those fundamentals every time we step on the field"

Having a positive turnover margin isn't just about holding on to the ball, with taking the ball away from the other team proving an equally important aspect to the success of any college program. And while Army's defense hasn't been the most opportunistic unit in the country over the last several seasons, Ellerson has a track record of coaching aggressive defenses which help to "create" their own luck with forcing turnovers. His Arizona Wildcat defense of 2000 was fifth in the country in forcing turnovers, collecting 33 fumbles and interceptions on the season. Like protecting the ball, Ellerson said that forcing turnovers is something he has already begun stressing to his team at Army.

"We take great pride in our ball awareness…we are aware of the football and we have tools and we know how to take the thing away."

Added Ellerson: "We reinforce those tools daily and routinely and we reinforce them throughout the practice environment."

If nothing else, statistics should be on Army's side heading into 2009. While the Cadets have flown in the face of college football preview-man Phil Steele and his infamous ‘Turnover=Turnaround' approach to statistical analysis, the reputable commentator said he felt confident that Army is bound for improvement under Ellerson.

"I can't recall a team which has had double-digit turnovers in the negative category for four straight years, so I think Army will break that trend this year," said Steele in a recent podcast with ArmySports.com. "I think they will be better at holding on to the ball this year. It may be a new system coming in, but it is still an option offense."

Army fans looking for an established example of turnover margin improvement and the role it can play in overall record improvement would be right to assume a familiar and oft-cited example; Navy.

While Navy struggled in their 2-10 season under then-first year head coach Paul Johnson in 2002, the Midshipmen saw their record climb to 8-5 the next season. One of the main culprits? A positive turnover margin. Navy went from being -14 in turnovers during 2002 to +7 in 2003, a remarkable turnaround which has helped to explain one of the greatest program revivals in modern history.

With an example like that, and a head coach with a similar philosophy to the one which helped to reverse Navy's fortunes six years ago, perhaps the Black Knights aren't as far away from the finish line as we originally thought.

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