My, what an interesting week of football talk we have here. On the same day that Ohio State won the Big Ten yet generated a considerable amount of frustration among its fan base, the Army football team won a game but failed to inspire long-term confidence about the future. It just goes to show how life can produce the same patterns and dynamics at different levels of competition. Buckeyes and Black Knights were brought together this past weekend, in ways no one could have expected when Nov. 14 finally came across the calendar.
What to make of the Brave Old Army Team's unsettling and anything-but-easy win over the Virginia Military Institute of the Football Championship Subdivision? On one hand, a win is a win. On one hand, the Black Nights have four victories in a season for the first time since 2005. On one hand, a .500 season is still a possibility. On one hand, Army defeated an FCS foe, which stands in stark contrast to the 28-10 home loss last season to FCS-based New Hampshire.
On the other hand…
How could Army win by only five points against a VMI outfit that lost by 55 points at Michie Stadium three years ago (62-7)? How could Army, against a team without imposing frontline beef, cough up the pill on four occasions? How could the Black Knights get outrushed, 328 yards to just 186? How could Rich Ellerson's athletes blow a 10-0 halftime lead and apparent control of the proceedings on the banks of the Hudson River?
It's unfortunate that a win has to be overshadowed by lingering clouds of doubt, but if Army wants to make the upward march in college football's pecking order, VMI has to be throttled, not barely eclipsed. That's the unofficial but real law of the gridiron jungle: You have to punish teams below your pay grade, and Army didn't do that in the season's home finale.
What to do or say? Well, one can only go piece by piece… and then look to the future.
First of all, a win is a win. A culture of excellence insists on precision and performance, but it also doesn't dismiss the value of victory. Deeply flawed games must be responded to with an appropriate amount of concern and determination on the practice field, but when victories aren't appreciated, the point of keeping score vanishes into thin air. A locker room doesn't need to exhibit goofy grins or a pervasive sense of contentment after a flawed win such as this one, but a football family does need to allow itself to be happy… happy that win No. 4 is in the books; happy that the Black Knights produced a ballsy fourth-quarter touchdown drive to win the game after falling behind, 17-16; happy that Trent Steelman and Ali Villanueva made music together in the passing game.
Indeed, there should be joy in the Army camp this week, because many of the themes voiced in last week's review of the Air Force loss were borne out at Michie Stadium on Saturday: Army made plays with the passing game to provide some ballast and balance for Ellerson's offense. Steelman's 11-of-14 effort, without an interception, proved to be essential to this conquest of the visiting Keydets. Villanueva's seven-catch, 119-yard performance justified the coaching staff's decision to use the big man as a receiver. The game-winning drive in the fourth quarter was completed by Patrick Mealy, who gained 136 yards on just 16 carries, but without the Steelman-Villanueva combination, the Black Knights wouldn't have prevailed against VMI.
The kicking game, also pointed to last week against Air Force, acquired a prominent place in this Army win. Alex Carlton would like to see his teammates tally more touchdowns, but when asked to perform, the placekicker answered the bell by hitting three field goals in as many attempts. All in all, the more complete and holistic pigskin portfolio Army needs to acquire in the coming years was manifested in short but significant stretches on Saturday. If the Black Knights can manage to build on the good aspects of this game while weeding out the negative elements of their performance, they'll have something special on their hands.
So, with VMI in the rearview mirror, how should one assess this team going forward? Is game 10 of the 2009 campaign a sign of emerging offensive balance, or an indication that bigger beatdowns are going to be suffered in the years to come? Did the five-point escape against the Keydets buoy this team's sense of confidence, or does the shaky showing suggest that not much has been achieved in the attempt to change this program's overall mindset?
Well, if in doubt, look to the next game. That's what Army fans must do.
This Saturday's tilt with North Texas, in the land of the Mean Green, will say a lot about Army's evolution. The dudes from Denton are struggling, but they own a potent offense behind quarterback Riley Dodge, son of Todd, the coach and a former standout quarterback for the University of Texas in the early 1980s. The battle with North Texas stands out not just because UNT is an FBS program, or because the Mean Green will pose more problems for Army's pass defense, but because the new shape of Army's schedule essentially makes this week's upcoming game the regular season finale.
Sure, the encounter with UNT isn't the final game of the 2009 season, but it sure feels that way. With the Navy extravaganza pushed back to Dec. 12, this week's game in the Lone Star State will be the last game played under the normal week-to-week rhythms of a football season. When the Black Knights lock horns with the Midshipmen, they'll be coming off a three-week break, which is the kind of layoff normally associated with a bowl game, and not a regular-season affair. If Army really wants to show that it's made of sterner stuff, and is ready to improve as a program in the still-young Ellerson era, it will bring a big-league fight to the Mean Green, and claim a fifth victory in the process.
Upset about the mistakes that vexed you against VMI? Wait til the tilt in North Texas to render a more finite verdict about the Brave Old Army Team in 2009.
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