Timing is Everything for Army

Luck will always be a part of a sport played by 19- and 20-year-olds involving an odd-shaped ball that will bounce, fly and flutter in different directions. The key is that when gifted by the fates, a team must be able make full use of any newfound fortune that comes its way.

Army received a bountiful set of benefits on Saturday afternoon at Michie Stadium. At the end of the day, however, the Black Knights were good enough and tough enough to turn their blessings into their second victory of the season.

Before praising the Brave Old Army Team for its resolve and resourcefulness in week three, a bit of perspective is needed to describe Army's increasingly cuddly relationship with Lady Luck, that seductive mistress which—in its best moments—is indeed the residue of design and the deserved fruit of all-out effort.

Rich Ellerson—for all the good things he's doing right now in West Point—would not have been able to beat back Ball State if this game had been played a year ago. Army regularly puts a few Mid-American Conference clubs on its Autumnal dance card (the Black Knights are now 2-0 against the MAC in 2009), so a date with Ball State wasn't unlikely in the same way that a non-conference game with USC would have been. Given this background, Army evidently hit 21 at the Vegas blackjack table, or rolled a pair of sixes (pick your image) under the approving gaze of the woman Frank Sinatra so famously sang about. Luck was Army's lady on Saturday for a number of reasons, but the biggest one concerned the calendar.

Had this game been staged in 2008, the Cardinals—then coached by Brady Hoke and quarterbacked by Nate Davis—would have almost certainly rolled over Army, endowed with a balanced yet prolific offense plus the innate confidence needed to make it flourish. Before catching the turnover bug in the MAC Championship Game against Buffalo, the Cardinals won all 12 of their regularly-scheduled games in 2008, doing something no Ball State team had done since 1949. Running back MiQuale Lewis broke the school's season record for rushing touchdowns with 21, and a program that was pulling in just 2,000 fans for home games suddenly drew record crowds to the campus in Muncie, Ind., where a man named David Letterman once walked the grounds.

One of the enduringly unpredictable elements of collegiate sports lies in the fact that, in contrast to professional ball, athletes come and go more frequently than coaches do. In many years, the difference between winning and losing on the football field is a matter of graduation and the NFL Draft, even more than X-and-O excellence. Last season, Army wouldn't have stood a chance against Ball State's brilliance. This season, the Black Knights had a great opportunity to win, but despite their good fortune, the boys in black had to make the most of their afternoon against a collection of Cardinals that had its wings clipped in the off season.

Sure enough, this new-look Army outfit—fortunate, but fearless—showed why Michie Stadium already owns a different kind of vibe in 2009.

Make no mistake (pun intended, given Army's constant battle with ball security), the home team put that odd-shaped ball on the turf six times, but the weird bounces of the laced object fell into the mitts of the Black Knights of five of those occasions. Ball State cashed in the one fumble recovery it received, but on this day, the tale of the tape sided with Army on the all-important topic of turnovers.

With no Nate Davis around to expertly fling the football, Ball State crumbled at the quarterback position. Starting signal caller Kelly Page and backup Tanner Justice were shaky throughout this game, a sure sign that new coach Stan Parrish has a lot more work to do. Much more importantly, though, the poor passes gave Army its ticket to another triumph, and when the ball was waiting to be plucked, the Black Knights' defenders produced the prime-time plays Ellerson needed.

Yes, Justice threw a floater—influenced by pressure from Army's defensive front—in the latter stages of the second quarter, but cornerback Mario Hill was able to lay out his body and make a superb diving catch.

Yes, Page tempted the fates with two dangerous fourth-quarter throws, but Army's Donovan Travis—the game's MVP—didn't drop the two picks that wound up deciding this duel on the banks of the Hudson. By blunting one BSU drive that penetrated Army territory, and then providing the pick-six that broke a 17-all tie in a second half during which Ellerson's offense never dented the scoreboard, Travis ensured that Army made the most of its 2009 (not 2008) tilt with Ball State.

And so it is written: Timing is indeed everything. From Donovan Travis's unerring instincts, to Mario Hill's perfectly-measured dive, to the avoidance of Ball State's most brilliant team by a single year, Army timed this game as well as humanly possible. An uncanny convergence of factors added up to a win.

Sure, Lady Luck was on Rich Ellerson's side on Saturday. Just realize, as well, that in this significantly reshaped season, the Black Knights are now playing with an extra edge that has made them good enough to turn good breaks into even better results. Such an ability has rarely existed in West Point over the past decade; this team has miles to go before it sleeps, but after the first fourth of this season, the Brave Old Army Team is exploiting and leveraging opportunities. That one fact is enough to suggest that a team-wide transformation—hoped for at the beginning of this campaign—is unfolding on schedule.

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