Army: A Season Rich In Possibility

Army's football program glimpsed new vistas of potential and promise last season. However, it's worth noting that Moses only saw the Promised Land from a distance. He never set foot on terra firma in the land his people cherished. It's time for the Black Knights of the Hudson to walk the gridiron in the EagleBank Bowl at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C.

Head coach Rich Ellerson endured a rather unique experience in 2009. Army's new boss took over for Stan Brock and ran a very strong race from his seat of gameday authority. However, just before the finish line, West Point's newest sideline commander ran out of steam.

What's the perfect way to describe Ellerson's maiden voyage as Army's head coach? In the sixth grade, this columnist played at a piano recital. Everything went so well for the first 99 percent of the piece. The focus and concentration were there. Oh, it wasn't a masterwork by any stretch, but the piece moved forward without major disasters. And then, on the very last note – whether due to a sense of relief, complacency or distraction – my finger struck not just the wrong piano key, but a note two keys removed from the proper one. The sound was so discordant, the sensation so jarring, that the awareness of a generally well-played piece evaporated. All anyone could talk or think about at the family dinner table that night was the last note, the note that was so markedly wayward and out of place.

Yes, in life, people remember the last note you play at the piano. They remember the last thing you've done in an arena of performance. They remember the last impression or image you left with your work. Part of this is the "what have you done for me lately" syndrome, but another piece of this puzzle comes from a much more appropriate impulse: the desire to see things finished after being started. Flub the last note, and an opus should be diminished and downgraded in terms of quality.

Such was the case for Mr. Ellerson and Army Football in 2009.

Yes, the Tulane game was a midseason hiccup, and the Temple loss carried its own "we-almost-had-it" sting. Then again, Army scratched like a junkyard dog to dig out close-shave wins against Ball State, Vanderbilt, VMI, and North Texas, plus a 13-point pasting of Eastern Michigan. Much like the Connecticut Huskies – just to give one prominent example from a power conference – Army played a boatload of close contests in 2009. The Black Knights were soundly defeated a few times, but they never truly got lit up. (The 35-7 loss to Air Force was an even-steven game for a half, and it quickly got away from Army because of a handful of big plays made by the Falcons after halftime.)

A typical Army game from 2009 was a white-knuckle knock-down-drag-out that was decided in the fourth quarter. The old-time football religion about "playing for 60 minutes" and "having a chance to win in the fourth quarter" most certainly applied to this team. Sometimes it pulled the pigskin out of the fire, and sometimes it got burned. Such is life when you live on the edge. All in all, Army fans had to be thrilled with a 5-6 mark after 11 games. Previous years exhausted all reasonable hope after 11 games. This time, The Long Gray Line marched into Philadelphia with Army having a chance to win a sixth game and advance to the EagleBank Bowl. A win over Navy – in the final act of each and every regular season for Army Football – would have completed and crowned Ellerson's first season in command. Then came that flubbed note, just before the very end of the journey.

The global audience for the latest Army-Navy Game was shocked when Ellerson decided to kick a field goal with 10:21 left and his team trailing 10-3 with a 4th and 3 at the Navy 14. Earlier in the game, Ellerson had made similar decisions to punt on fourth down rather than go for the first down. Those decisions were understandably geared toward keeping Army in the game by denying Navy the chance to get a short field. In fact, the precise reason for those early-stage kicks by Ellerson was to… wait for it… give Army a chance to win the game in the fourth quarter.

For that very reason, there was no legitimate justification for kicking a field goal when down by seven points in the Navy red zone in the fourth quarter of a defense-dominated donnybrook. In a 31-24 game, accepting three points with 10 minutes left makes a certain amount of sense, especially since you inoculate yourself against a field goal in response (and can still tie the game in a 34-27 contest several minutes later). However, with the score just 10-3 in favor of Navy, there was absolutely no reason not to pursue a first down en route to a tying touchdown. Why Ellerson – so aggressive with his decision making through the first 11 games of the year – turned timid in game 12 (and not just any game, of course, but the one against the Midshipmen) is something that we'll never fully know. His job of coaching throughout 2009 was quite impressive, and it earned considerable acclaim from a rightly grateful fan base.

However, that flubbed final note in the last quarter of the closing act. Ah, that last note. The unexpectedly off-key sound, the ker-thud after 11 games of flowing music and elevated Army efforts between the painted white lines, left the Black Knight Nation in shock.

You can be sure that Rich Ellerson will use that painful experience as motivation this year. He'll use it for himself, of course, but he'll also use it to impart an important sports truth to his 2010 team: It's all well and good to have a chance to win heading into the fourth quarter. Now, let's be in control in the fourth quarter. Yes, one of the great lessons taught by competitive athletics is this: Don't just be in position to win; be in position to win despite a mistake. In other words, cement enough of an advantage that one mistake or one atrocious piece of officiating can't beat you. If a face mask penalty isn't called and your running back coughs up a fumble that's returned for a touchdown, be up by nine points so that you're still leading by two after the bogus score by your opponent. If your secondary has a busted coverage which allows a quick-strike score with three minutes left in the fourth quarter, be up by 10 so that you still have the lead. That's where Army needs to travel this year. That's the path the Black Knights must follow. When you play so many games on the razor's edge of chance, the only way to improve the "W" side of the ledger and reduce the "L" total is to bank an extra 7-10 points before you get to crunch time.

The question, of course, is if Army can do that deed in 2010.

The happy news is that this team brings back a lot of experience to the table.

Trent Steelman? Back on board, now with a far greater understanding of what it takes to lead the triple option attack onto the playing field. Patrick Mealy and Jameson Carter? Ready to rock and roll once again at running back.

Center Zach Peterson and right guard Seth Reed? You can find them on a seasoned offensive front yet again.

On defense, the tune is the same. A defense that did most of the heavy lifting for this team in 2009 is loaded with upperclassmen. If linebacker Stephen Anderson and cornerback Richard King can bounce back from injuries, this will be a formidable and appreciably deep defense for the Brave Old Army Team.

All in all, it's not as though Ellerson is facing a substantial amount of turnover in his second year at the helm. He has players who know what to expect from him; he shouldn't have to start from scratch in terms of teaching the game in his signature manner. If Steelman grows into the position and – this is a huge key – finds a step-up receiver who can reliably get open for big pass plays, Army's offense should be able to supplement the team's credentialed defense. Aside from an emergent receiver on the edges, a second key need for Army this season is ball security. Some teams can get away with one or two turnovers a game, but Army – due to both its offensive approach (ball control, shorten the game, pound away at an opposing defense) and its lack of imposing size up front – cannot cough up the pill. It's a non-negotiable requirement at West Point, and everyone knows it.

A third point of emphasis for any team that plays lots of close games (or at least, expects to be involved in many more of them) is to steal as many hidden points and hidden yards from special teams. Through long field goals that are converted and effective kick coverage (which didn't always exist last season, as the Vanderbilt and Air Force games affirmed), Army can substantially re-shape the scoreboard calculus so that it can have a nine- or 10-point lead entering the final six minutes of regulation, instead of having a tenuous two-point lead that can evaporate in a heartbeat.

Will Army take the extra strides that are needed to reach the .500 mark or better? Will this team not get distracted near the finish line? Will Rich Ellerson continue to make sweet music in 2010, but then hit the right note at the end of his regular-season journey? These are the questions that await a season that's loaded with promise… a season that could mark the ascendance of Army Football.

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