Saturday's 27-14 victory in Ypsilanti, Mich., against another team breaking in a new coach (Ron English, the former defensive coordinator at Michigan and, more recently, Louisville), should not be seen as definitive proof that the Brave Old Army Team has turned the corner. It's far too early in a season to go that far, especially when one considers that Eastern Michigan resides in a Mid-American Conference that, with the notable exception of Buffalo, got kicked around this past weekend. Eclipsing the Eagles of Mr. English is not the kind of conquest on which a full-scale recovery is built, but it's a nice, solid step toward rediscovered respectability in the college football community. More specifically, the way in which Army prevailed is what should gently but genuinely encourage so many observers of the team.
The first and foremost aspect of this 13-point triumph is that it was the fruit of flinty resolve and a feisty spirit that relished a challenge instead of flinching from it. As soon as Army's 13-0 lead was trimmed to 13-7 early in the fourth quarter, the Black Knights immediately responded with a 79-yard touchdown drive to show the home team who was boss. An authoritative downfield march fueled by a 31-yard 3rd-and-4 conversion by Jameson Carter (5 carries for 52 yards in the game), and later capped by a 10-yard touchdown run from Kingsley Ehie (12 carries for 75 yards), put to rest any hopes of a MAC attack from the hosts. It also energized the visiting sideline in Ypsilanti and proved that, at least for one night, an Army team could thrive in the crucible of crunch time and make plays that were timely in addition to being athletically impressive.
No two touchdown drives are created equal, as is the case for just about anything else in competitive sports. The timeliness of plays good and bad determines the contours of a contest, and in this tussle, it was Army who had the right answers in the biggest moments. Ellerson and the rest of his coaching staff have to be ecstatic about the response to adversity they witnessed over the weekend.
The second big highlight of Saturday's successful outing was the first drive of the game, always an indication of how the game plan and the points of emphasis are communicated by the coaches and then absorbed by the roster. Ellerson's pregame (and, for that matter, off-season) preparation was clearly taken to heart, because Army showed , out of the gate, an immediate feel for the triple option as taught by a master of the craft. In a drive that would have made the folks at Navy (almost) jealous, the Black Knights bled the ball down the field, slowly torturing the Eagles by moving the sticks in incremental fashion. Army used 12 plays to cover just 57 yards in 6:44 of game time, hitting paydirt before the EMU passing game could get its hands on the pigskin. While it's true that Army's offense stalled in the game's middle two quarters, that first drive set a positive tone, breathing confidence into a club that needed emotional ballast at the start of a new gridiron journey.
A third impressive aspect of this road win was that Ellerson stuck with his plan. The option specialist wanted his team to learn to run the option in the heat of gameday competition, and after running on 49 of 54 offensive snaps, it would be hard to deny the notion that Army is a better, more experienced option team. Those 49 running plays (balanced against just five pass attempts) produced 300 yards on the dot, good for a gloriously high average of six yards a pop. By being relentless and ruthless in his use of the option, Ellerson didn't just wear down Eastern Michigan; he sent a message to his team that had to reverberate throughout the locker room and linger on the flight home to West Point. "You are what you are" is a favorite truism of football coaches, and Ellerson is clearly trying to ensure that if Army is asked, "What are you?" by an opponent, the Black Knights will be able to say something on the order of, "A damn tough outfit that will wear you down ‘til the last dog dies."
Surely, bigger and more revealing tests await the Brave Old Army Team as 2009 gets going. But after one week, the positive clearly outweighs the negative at the United States Military Academy. That alone represents a heaping helping of progress. How fabulous it is to contemplate such a reality, at least for the time being.
Flinty, Feisty, Focused, and Fabulous
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