Inch By Inch, Life's A Cinch

Saturday's vanquishing of Vanderbilt—a bowl team in 2008—has Army 3-3 at the midpoint of a football season for the first time in 13 years. Why are the Black Knights enjoying the best fall of football they've experienced in more than a decade? They're listening to Rich Ellerson… and Al Pacino.

Call it hokey and corny. Call it a clichéd Hollywood reference. Sometimes, however, coachspeak accurately characterizes a crowning conquest on the playing fields of Autumn. Coach Tony D'Amato, Pacino's character in the movie Any Given Sunday, famously tells his team before a playoff game, "Ya gotta fight for that inch!" In the wake of Saturday's 16-13 overtime win over an SEC opponent, a triumph which has the Brave Old Army Team at .500 and pursuing bigger goals in the second half of the 2009 campaign, that's really the best explanation for Army's upward climb in the college football community.

The Black Knights fought the Commodores for every inch of Michie Stadium real estate, and defended the final few inches of the field with the resolve you'd expect from a service academy ballclub. When Army's Andrew Rodriguez knocked the ball from the grasp of Vanderbilt running back Warren Norman at the 1-yard line on the first possession of overtime, the Black Knights—on the verge of defeat in the latter stages of this white-knuckler in West Point—flipped the Hollywood script. Much like the fictional Tony D'Amato, Army stood on the sunshine side of life at the end of a feel-good movie that, in this case, was happily real.

Inches were seen throughout this fistfight: The obvious inches (other than the ones defended by Mr. Rodriguez near his team's own goal line) emerged on the two field goals that pinged off the left upright at an angle that enabled them to carom through the goal posts, and not away from them. One week after his heartbreaking miss against Tulane, Army kicker Alex Carlton nailed not only a 51-yard boot in the second quarter, but a 42-yard game winner off the metal piping in overtime for the victory. (Vanderbilt kicker Ryan Fowler also had a late kick ding off the pole and through, forcing the extra period in the first place.)

There were, however, other inches (sometimes hidden or wrapped inside yards) that propelled Army past Vanderbilt. Consider the inches of pad level, inside positioning, and overall leverage that the Black Knights gained against Vandy's offensive line. On this afternoon, the letters "S-E-C" stood for "Simply Exceeded Commodores," as Army outfought, outfoxed, and outclassed its foe from the most celebrated BCS conference in the country. The Black Knights—who could have lagged and sagged after the ugly loss to Tulane—instead redoubled their efforts and outrushed Vandy by a count of 222 yards to 160. The notion that a team "wanted it more" is an overrated and unsatisfying explanation for many outcomes in sports, college football being no exception; a much better way of describing Army's victorious effort against a vexed Vanderbilt outfit is that Army wanted this game "better" than the Commodores did. This brings us to the best aspect of this thriller in front of a delighted home crowd near the banks of the Hudson.

Other than the result itself, the most marvelous morsel to be gained from this sweetly redemptive Saturday is the fact that Army paid extra attention to the little things, the small details that, inch by inch, make a big difference on gameday.

The Tulane loss, as mentioned last week, was so distinctly gnarly and gnawing because the Black Knights gave it away to the Green Wave. Army coughed up the pill and littered Michie Stadium with loads of yellow laundry. In this game against Vanderbilt, Ellerson's demand for discipline paid off, as Army committed only one turnover and only four penalties for a small total of just 29 yards. Vandy imploded, with three turnovers and 12 penalties for 99 yards. This contest reminded football fans why coaches are so perpetually worried about mistakes; when teams with Army's limitations can simply eliminate negative plays, the chances of winning improve to a considerable degree. The Black Knights finally nipped their problems in the bud, and sure enough, they snatched their third win of 2009 as a result.

They're not overpowering.

They're not balanced.

They can't impose their will on opponents.

But the Army Black Knights know how to fight for that inch.

Look how far those extra inches have carried them through the first half of a very encouraging football season in West Point.


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