The Black Knights Ride Tall In Texas

If the 2009 edition of the Army football team is maddening in its inability to blow out weaker opponents, Rich Ellerson's athletes have proven to be even more magical in their ability to persevere. Eleven football games have come and gone for the Black Knights, and guess what? They're still eligible for the EagleBank Bowl.

In many ways, this was the last regular-season game for Army, as Ellerson's outfit strode into Denton, Tex., for a tussle with some hospitable hosts inaccurately labeled the Mean Green. With the Navy game being pushed back to Dec. 12, this two-step with North Texas had the atmosphere of a final, fateful throwdown.

The Saturday afternoon encounter, you could say, was the last roundup in cattle country before the super-sized pageantry of the annual battle with the Midshipmen. For all of its manifest flaws and imperfections, Army needed to show that winning is becoming more of a habit... not just to sustain its hopes of a bowl bid, but also to send a message to a Navy program that – on a bye week – surely took note of what happened in the Lone Star State.

Judging by the way Army dug out a 17-13 triumph at Fouts Field, it can now be said that the Black Knights' competitive chops are as good as they've been in quite a while.

For the first time since 1996, when Bob Sutton's stalwarts forged a 10-2 masterpiece, the Brave Old Army Team is the proud owner of five wins. More importantly, a West Point ballclub is beginning to prove – at least to some extent – that its grit and tenacity can lead to positive scoreboard results. Whereas previous Army teams could only attain moral victories, this four-point conquest of a Sun Belt Conference foe indicates that the Black Knights have become better finishers in this first year of the Ellerson era.

Indeed, this death-defying dance in Denton – fresh off an ugly but undeniable win over VMI – shows that Army football, in 2009, is just the opposite of an underachiever. While many talented teams across the country (think of 3-7 Illinois, for instance) mail it in almost every Saturday and stamp themselves as "all hat and no cattle," Army is 180 degrees different. This team might not have much sizzle, but it possesses a lot of steak. The Black Knights don't roll up big numbers, but they've learned to squeeze every ounce of competitive value from the yards they acquire and the takeaways their defense accumulates.

This game against North Texas affirmed these tendencies in exhilarating fashion.

What made this four-point win so significant – beyond the Navy game, and beyond the matter of bowl eligibility – is that it really should allow the program to move forward with the Ellerson project. The same Army team that's been waxed by Iowa State, Rutgers and Air Force in 2009 is also the roster that has become very resourceful in close contests, a result of a more effective sideline and a better subculture on the practice field and in the locker room.

Only the season opener at Eastern Michigan involved a winning margin of more than two scores for Army, which tells you that this team's other four wins have been extremely close. Yes, some white-knucklers didn't fall Army's way this season (oh, how the 17-16 loss to Tulane stings right now, but that was part of this club's maturation process…), but with the grind of the normal season now done, and the three-week preparation phase just beginning on the road to Dec. 12, it can be said that Saturday's win at North Texas should substantially affect the way this team is remembered.

When quarterback Trent Steelman got stopped on 4th and 2 from the Army 35 with 5:29 left in regulation and UNT leading by a 13-10 score, shades of the second-half letdown against Temple came flooding into the minds of Army watchers everywhere. Once again, a frail front line couldn't clear out enough space to move the chains in a man-making motivational moment. It appeared to everyone at Fouts Field that a 50-50 ballgame would tilt in the direction of the Mean Green, lending credence to the notion that the Temple loss and the Tulane gut-puncher were more indicative of Army's season. When Steelman got stuffed, the phrase "turning the corner" had no shelf life whatsoever.

But my, how the battling Black Knights changed perceptions in the final 5:29. Play after play, the Brave Old Army Team lived up to that name.

Facing a 3rd and 1 on defense from their own 12, the men who make up Army's untiring defense delivered a four-yard loss to force UNT to kick a somewhat valuable but largely hollow field goal in a three-point contest. Unsatisfied with their significant stop, however, the defensive front pushed even harder, and shifted the balance of this battle to an even greater degree.

Defensive end Marcus Hilton got a paw on UNT kicker Jeremy Knott's 33-yard field goal try, blocking it backwards and offering Army a combination platter of improved field position and runaway momentum. Steelman hopped aboard the freight train, and when Ellerson's quarterback raced 55 yards on the very next play from scrimmage, Army suddenly stood seven yards from the lead. After working the ball to the UNT 2, Steelman scored on 2nd and goal to give the visitors the advantage, a reality that seemed inconceivable just minutes earlier.

A remarkable turnaround had been engineered, but a defense that couldn't bring down the hammer against Tulane or rise up in the fourth quarter against Temple needed to produce one more stand. Army had to maintain focus if it wanted to get out of Dodge with a win against a team coached and quarterbacked by the Dodge family (head man Todd and quarterback Riley).

Sure enough, that moment emerged at the 1:31 mark of regulation, as cornerback Ty Shrader, a freshman, produced an upperclassman-like interception to seal a supremely sweet comeback conquest. In only five and a half minutes, the ghosts of Tulane and Temple were expunged.

If you go through the season slate after 11 games, you'll find that the Brave Old Army Team has won more close games than it has lost. Without this triumph in Texas, the Black Knights' record would be decidedly mixed in pigskin pulse-pounders, but now – after another blemish-filled beauty of a win – it's clear that Rich Ellerson's team is better at preserving leads than blowing them. When was the last time you could say that about a collection of West Pointers in pads and helmets?

The answer, of course, is 1996, a time when Army football owned the final minutes, especially against You Know Who. If Navy can't land an early knockout blow on Dec. 12, somebody knows how to take charge in the late stages of a gridiron grudge match.

Yes, this win over North Texas just changed a great many perceptions about the identity of Army's football program. This team hasn't turned the corner by any stretch, but that corner is now very much in sight.

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