Eastern Michigan Review: "He Went To Jared!"

When Rich Ellerson and the rest of the Army football team needed someone to hit paydirt on Saturday night in Ypsilanti, Michigan, they found their diamond in the rough. They went to Jared. Jared Hassin. As a result, what would have been a loss on par with the Tulane stomach-turner from 2009 instead became a jewel of an evening in the Upper Midwest.

It's quite pleasant – but moreover, very instructive – for Army to pull out a close-shave, white-knuckle special to christen the 2010 season. This is the gridiron life West Pointers will have to embrace and accept. This team won't be dynamic enough to put opponents at its feet after two and a half quarters (heck, LSU couldn't finish off the double-A minor-league version of North Carolina on Saturday night), but it has the triple-option offense which can crank out 309 rushing yards despite a minimally effective passing attack. The Black Knights of the Hudson were good enough to beat back Eastern Michigan in a road opener for the second straight season, but they allowed the Eagles – winless in 2009 – to hang around and come within 38 seconds (and then one scary last-second fling to the end zone) of pulling off an upset.

What does this mean? In the bottom-line world of college football – where you get only 12 chances to define yourself – it's going to be very hard to play the "what-if" game with the Brave Old Army Team.

Last year, the beginning of the Ellerson era turned into a second-guesser's dream, a Monday morning quarterback's paradise. Fourth-down gambles ventured (Temple) and shelved (Navy) were questioned and dissected with equal fervor, creating the kind of narrative which lacks satisfying clarity. A large pool of critics could say that the unsuccessful decisions by Ellerson prevented Army from being a bowl team and deprived the Black Knights of utterly attainable wins against beatable foes. A substantial body of supporters identified Ellerson's boldness as a welcome injection of backbone into a program that found a new level of verve in 2009. Even the failures were part of a growing process for a team that legitimately improved.

The hard part about the 2009 season – which had to linger in people's minds as Eastern Michigan took a 27-24 lead over Army with 2:39 left this past Saturday – is that it could be spun either way. Army was either a few plays away from being 7-5, or a few plays away from being 3-9. (Stan) Brock-era blowouts were less copious, but somehow, that undeniable elevation of quality under Ellerson did not remove contentiousness from a debate about Army's football identity.

Now that Saturday's 2010 opener is in the books, perhaps the Army football family can get past that familiar but unproductive debate.

If this 31-27 thriller should tell us something, it's that close games are here to stay on the banks of the Hudson. Granted, this was an opener, so a max-out performance should not have been expected. Yet, this was the opener for Eastern Michigan as well, and the Eagles – wanting to give head coach Ron English the first win of his tenure at the MAC school – acquitted themselves well. After Army more decisively dumped EMU 12 months ago at this time, the Eagles made adjustments and narrowed the gap. Imagine that, folks! A down-on-its-luck program, trying to work its way up the ladder, got better and fought harder – I think Army fans can relate to what Eastern Michigan fans (and players) are going through.

Were all West Pointers hoping for a 20-point blowout? Of course. But now that this four-point win has been tucked away, it's helpful to remember the simple saying, "one's an accident, two's a trend." If you hoped that year one under Rich Ellerson was going to be an aberration, a one-time-only journey through a world of close games, this 2010 lid-lifter shows that we're probably headed for a lot more photo finishes in year two.

Therefore, be it resolved that we're not going to have any more of these "well, we're only a few good plays from being 8-4" or "a few bad plays from 3-9" discussions. A world of close games is the world Army football lives in. This team will either conquer a majority of late-game crucibles in 2010, or it will fall short. The Black Knights will either suck it up and produce something akin to the ballsy, two-minute-and-21-second cash-money drive they produced in the final minutes against Eastern Michigan, or they won't. Jared Hassin and his backfield teammates will move the sticks and gain tough yards in meaningful situations, or they won't. A defense that wobbled in the fourth quarter against EMU quarterback Alex Gillett and running back Dwayne Priest will become more resilient in pressure situations, or it won't.

No one will be doing this team any favors come mid-December if a 3-9 season is met with the response, "Oh, but we were so close to going to a bowl game! We're just about to turn the corner!" No, that would be a terrible way to frame 2010 if that's the way things unfold.

Similarly, if Army posts an 8-4 record, it would be not only uncharitable, but downright wrong, to find an inner Grinch and contend that "Bah, the team was just a few 50-50 plays from being 5-7 again, just like 2009!" Such a view would rob a team of verifiable progress and hard-won improvements.

College programs across the land – look at the University of Washington, for instance: long on hype and short on results after a stinging loss at BYU – take a very long time to learn how to win, if they ever do. Army is fully and firmly immersed in that process, that stage of development.

If this game against Eastern Michigan has taught us anything, it's that you might want to eat light or (if not) bring some antacid for every West Point football game in 2010. The stomach will be aflutter in the fourth quarter on most Saturdays, and it's up to Ellerson's athletes to win more close games than they lose.

No regrets. No looking back. No what-if games. No "we coulda been three games better if these three plays had gone differently." No "we woulda been three games worse if the ball didn't bounce our way."

You are what you are in college football, and Army has reaffirmed itself as a team that will keep things interesting for 60 minutes on most Saturdays in 2010. Kudos and congratulations to the Black Knights for pulling this passion play out of the fire against some revenge-minded Eagles who went home disappointed.

Speaking of being disappointed… that's not what anyone in the Army camp should be feeling upon its return to the West Point campus.

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