Army's Saturday night loss to Iowa State was a thoroughly unpleasant experience for the Black Knights and coach Rich Ellerson. This, to be blunt, was a tail-kicking. Iowa State asserted itself in the trenches, limiting the West Pointers to 186 rushing yards (not where Ellerson wants to be in terms of his team's offensive production) and an alarmingly poor 3-of-16 third-down conversion rate. The triple-option attack that's supposed to outfox and outflank stronger defenses could not dent the scoreboard in the second half, a testament to the Cyclones' unquestioned superiority.
On the other side of the ball, Army's defense put forth an entirely credible effort, but with the offense's pronounced and extended struggles, the Long Gray Line of defense could only hold on for so long. Iowa State might be a doormat in the Big 12 North Division, but against Army, new coach Paul Rhoads's team played the part of the heavyweight. That's not the most comforting reality for Black Knight fans to absorb. Yet, a conquering Army isn't built overnight; what must emerge from this 31-10 defeat is a sense of big-picture perspective, and when one realizes the nature of this loss, it could actually—gasp!—be a good thing that this kind of defeat was endured in the heart of America's breadbasket.
In the first three games of the 2009 campaign, three distinct narratives played out on the gridiron for Ellerson and his staff. In game one, everything went right against Eastern Michigan. In week two, a pair of pick-sixes created a deceptively decisive scoreline against Duke, on a day when Army competed far better than the final numbers could ever indicate. In week three, the Black Knights took advantage of the fact that Ball State '09 is a darn sight worse than Ball State '08, pouncing on interceptions—ironically enough—in much the same way that the Dukies did against Ellerson's outfit the week before. In these three games, Army experienced an authoritative win, a close-but-not-quite defeat, and a narrow win made all the more satisfying for its uncertainty. With a set of opponents not far removed from Army's league (if at all), the Black Knights tested themselves in a context of competitive parity.
Iowa State—long the recipient of beatdowns at the hands of the Nebraskas, Oklahomas, and Oklahoma States of the college football world—figured to offer Army another well-balanced and generally competitive contest. ISU has lacked a finishing kick this decade—the program tumbled under Gene Chizik, the former Cyclone boss who has found new life at Auburn, and didn't seem ready to amp up its intensity against the Black Knights. At first blush, absorbing a three-touchdown whipping at the hands of Iowa State and Rhoads, its new coach, offers cause for concern. But on the other side of darkness is a new dawn, and this experience in Ames might be just the face slap, the bucket of cold water, this program needs to move forward.
No one around West Point dared to think that a bowl game was a likely result of this initial journey in the Ellerson era. A first season with the one-time Cal-Poly coach was going to be valuable to the extent that Ellerson could diagnose problems and adjust accordingly with an eye on 2010 and beyond. Skating by against so-so opponents, or narrowly losing due to unlikely clusters of events, can mask both the strengths and the deficiencies of a slowly-evolving ballclub. Receiving an old-fashioned whipping, on the other hand, offers the gift of long-term clarity amidst short-term pain. The sobriety and self-awareness caused by a deficient Saturday evening can bear more football fruit than a deceptively close loss or a fortuitous close-shave conquest .
Bet your last dollar on this: Rich Ellerson now has more to build on than ever before, more reason to proceed with various adjustments, tweaks and re-toolings that will help Army get better. The benefits of this loss probably won't manifest themselves in the next two weeks—not on a large scale, at any rate—but they should emerge later in this season and, best of all, in the off-season to come. Sure, the end of September is not the best time to devote full attention to the more distant future, but by the same token, the far-off horizon is the true goal for an Army football family that's had to start from scratch on three separate occasions in the past six seasons.
Perhaps the positive fallout from this not-so-aimless night in Ames is that it will empower a coaching staff in its attempt to re-shape the subculture surrounding Army football. Then, in two seasons, no one on the banks of the Hudson will be thinking about a fourth coaching change. Iowa State's Cyclones just might have provided a push that will allow the Ellerson era to acquire added momentum in West Point.
Army's Aims Thwarted in Ames
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