Yes, as another season of pigskin action dawns on the banks of the Hudson, the theme floating through West Point concerns a beleaguered program's quest for fresh respect and credibility. At the end of a decade in which they've been dominated and decimated by Navy, Air Force, and almost everyone else in the college football world, the Black Knights can only hope they've finally found the right general to lead them out of the sport's wilderness.
No one would dispute the contention that service academy football isn't what it used to be; Army might have recently inked a deal to play Notre Dame at the new Yankee Stadium, but the Brave Old Army Team isn't about to tackle Knute Rockne's Four Horsemen, with Grantland Rice clacking away on his typewriter in the press box. No World War II-era epic involving Johnny Lujack versus (Doc) Blanchard and (Glenn) Davis is going to find a sequel anytime soon in the second decade of the 21st century. With that said, however, the new and more modest era of academy football does not give Army--bearer of a proud tradition as the most decorated non-BCS football program in the United States--license to slide into utter ineptitude. Even though Army no longer has access to the nation's premium players, the Black Knights should surely be able to hold their own between the painted white lines on Saturdays.
Enough to at least pursue a .500 record.
Enough to at least split the Commander-In-Chief games.
Enough to at least make Navy lose a droplet or two of sweat in the fourth quarter.
Enough to make The Long Gray Line feel particularly proud, regardless of the final score.
Make no mistake: Bobby Ross and Stan Brock gave it their best shot in recent seasons, but neither man possessed the signature creativity needed to win at the academy level. The long and short of modern-era military football is that winning comes from people who know how to work smarter, not just harder. More specifically, success in the "Commander-In-Chief Conference" typically emerges when a supple mind rides into Colorado Springs, Annapolis, or West Point with a fine feel for the wishbone, the triple-option, or a very close cousin thereof.
Brock latched onto the triple option during his tormented two-year tenure, but the former NFL offensive lineman didn't give birth to the offensive attack; it wasn't his baby, a part of his flesh and blood. Fisher DeBerry and Paul Johnson, on the other hand, always possessed a passion for three-pronged backfield football (keeper-fullback-pitch) in its wishbone or triple-option-based incarnations. Subsequently, the Falcons and Midshipmen excelled under each man.
Now comes Army's time to excel under Ellerson, the former Cal Poly coach who breathes, eats and sleeps triple option. This is where the 35th parallel comes into focus in the shadows of Michie Stadium.
You can say many things in praise of Ellerson's tenure on the West Coast as the mastermind of the FCS-level Mustangs. Ellerson turned around a previously moribund program by winning three Great West Conference titles, making multiple appearances in the top 25, and reaching the FCS playoffs on more than one occasion during eight superb seasons in San Luis Obispo. Those gaudy accomplishments might be enough to suggest that Ellerson is ready to win in West Point, but the signature indication of this man's coaching acumen comes from a game that Cal Poly lost in 2008.
At the end of the regular season, the Mustangs traveled to Camp Randall Stadium--one of the more imposing football venues in the country--for a matchup with the Wisconsin Badgers in Madison. Wisconsin did endure a miserable 2008 season, it should be said, but the Badgers got bludgeoned primarily because of injuries and limitations at the quarterback position. Coach Bret Bielema's defense wasn't the Achilles' heel for Wisconsin, so there was little reason to expect Cal Poly to pour on the points in an anything-but-average road game for the little FCS school from the Left Coast.
Ellerson's outfit, though, wouldn't allow doubts or fears to creep into mind. The Mustangs rolled up 371 yards without a turnover against Wisconsin, and turned the particularly impressive trick of controlling the ball for 40 minutes against an assemblage of Big Ten slobberknockers. When 60 minutes of football had been completed in Madison, Cal-Poly hadn't walked away with a win, but Ellerson's crew had posted 35 points against the Badgers, a total that would have been 38 if the Mustangs hadn't missed three extra points.
A team lost a Saturday slugfest, yet gained so much in the process. Ellerson especially benefited from the evening in the Great Lakes region, because it was that game that arched some eyebrows in college football circles. The two eyebrows that counted most were the ones belonging to Army Athletic Director Kevin Anderson.
That's what the 35th parallel can do for you: Ring up 35 points at Wisconsin, and the world becomes your oyster. Army fans can only hope that Rich Ellerson will net a big catch near the Hudson River, hauling in hardware and hosannas in the years to come.
First things first, though: One shouldn't expect everything to fall into place in 2009. As gifted as Ellerson might be (and the man does have to re-prove himself in West Point), it's worth remembering that Paul Johnson's first season at Navy was a 2-10 campaign in 2002. Pete Carroll's first year at USC, in 2001, netted a ho-hum 6-6 mark, including a disappointing and ugly 10-6 loss to a pre-Urban Meyer-era Utah team in the 2001 Las Vegas Bowl. Army doesn't have to scale the mountaintop all at once, nor should the Black Knights be expected to.
All that one can reasonably ask of this upcoming campaign is that the season begins to change the subculture of the locker room, enabling players to feel at home in a system and its attached set of roles and responsibilities. By the end of the year, Army athletes should be comfortable in their own skin, familiar with their assignments, and ready to perform at a more elevated level.
What's especially intriguing about this year's schedule is the one-week pushback of the Navy game to Dec. 12. With Army playing its first 11 games without an off week, the Black Knights will have three weeks to prepare for the Midshipmen. In a real sense, the game that has always been Army's equivalent of a bowl game will really feel like one in 2009. If the first 11 games, no matter how rocky or unsettled, enable Ellerson to strike fear into Navy on the gridiron, people close to this program will have reason to feel that Army will be on the march to rediscovered respectability... and to that 35th parallel of pigskin prominence the Black Knight fan base so richly deserves.
Army Season Preview: The 35th Parallel
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