When Army hosts Northern Illinois Saturday for the home opener at historic Michie Stadium, the atmosphere at West Point will resemble Opening Day at Yankee Stadium an hour to the south, optimism for the season, inspiring music from the bands, the Corps of Cadets, parachute jumpers, patriotism and a sense of history.
But can Army get passed that and control the game to pull an upset over a very strong Northern Illinois team?
This Army team came into the year feeling the program had finally matured in the fourth year of head coach Rich Ellerson's era. Top of mind goals are realistic chances for wins on the first Saturday in November against Air Force and on the second Saturday in December against Navy. But before those dates can be addressed, a schedule needs to be played and a winning season projected that will provide entry to the next goal of the season, playing in a bowl game.
College teams don't play preseason games, so it is always hard to judge their potential until they have played a real game. The Black Knights had their eyes opened wide last Saturday night at San Diego State in a 42-7 drubbing in which the senior quarterback, Trent Steelman, did not look right all night.
The senior missed three exchanges from his classmate center Will Wilson—a pair that have played together since prep school. The normally steady quarterback fumbled away one of the exchanges and threw two interceptions—both passes in heavy traffic that should at most have been sent into the sideline. With offense giving up the ball, the defense was left on the field too long and buckled.
Well, all that is last week and as Chris Smeland, the veteran Army defensive coach, says,
"We forget the past week on Monday and just concentrate on preparing the team for the game this week and the opponent."
Army might want to watch the tapes of its first three home games from 2011 when they played San Diego State, losing only by on a field goal in a game the Black Knights thought they should have won, then defeating Northwestern of the Big Ten and Tulane at Michie Stadium. They turned around the season last year after a bad opening loss and will want to rebuild their confidence and reputation as a solid team with a strong performance this week.
At his weekly press conference call on Tuesday, Army head coach Rich Ellerson talked about getting over the opening game and being ready for this week's home opener:
“We have to get over it, and that’s not easy. You’ve heard me say it a thousand times and I’ll say it again, we need to turn the scoreboard off and play. We know what wins. We need to go out there and focus on the things that correlate with winning – the things we practice and preach all the time. There are things that make the game fun to play. If we do that and hold on to each other, we’ll be competitive."
This West point team playing an option offense depends on the play of its quarterback Trent Steelman, who did not look like the player who has run and passed for over 4,000 yards in his Army career. About his senior quarterback, the coach said:
“He is obviously a guy who has tremendous expectations and is as intense a competitor as there is. That became an enemy of his. He tries to carry it all on his shoulders, and the truth is he doesn’t need to. At this point in his career here, there’s enough system and players around him that we need him to play quarterback. When he does, he’s a good player. Everything we do requires a real level of precision, and when somebody starts doing something just a little bit different to try to make something happen, all of the sudden you see something like what you saw on Saturday."
Northern Illinois will be a tough customer for Army in the home opener. The reigning Mid-America Conference Champions defeated Ohio University in the league championship game and then became bowl winners over Arkansas State. Ohio is the team that just beat Penn State to start the season while Northern Illinois played Iowa at Soldier Field in Chicago, losing by just a point on a late score by the Hawkeyes. Last year, Army traveled to Northern Illinois in the season opener and in similar fashion, was beaten decisively by the Huskies.
Coach Ellerson described Northern Illinois as:
"May be the best team on our schedule. The offense features big linemen who are really efficient at what they do. The quarterback brings his legs to the game and is a dynamic player in the backfield, while also being able to throw it. He’s not a one-dimensional guy; he has some great skill on the perimeter and has a running back whose style of running is a little bit like what we saw at San Diego State. He’ll get into the line, bounce back and is able to change direction on a dime. He’ll be hard to get a hit on."
The offense played without two starters, although Will Wilson in place of Ryan Powis at center is a very dominating player. I asked the coach about the return to the offense of several injured Black Knights:
“Our fingers are crossed that Malcolm (Brown) and Ryan (Powis) will be available this week. We’re hopeful we’ll get those two guys back on offense.”
On the defensive side of the ball, Army is young with young sophomore tackles up front, Robert Kough and Mike Ugenyi and Junior Holt Zalneraitis at a hybrid type of defensive end they call a "Whip." The team is still missing on the defensive line Jarrett Mackey, the senior named "Legacy" captain of the team at the end of the year who has still not received a medical clearance to play. In a question I asked about the defense, Coach Ellerson commented on the play of his defensive linemen:
"Bobby Kough and Mike Ugenyi will remain on the radar as defensive linemen. Bobby and Mike are playing their first college football and did not play especially well last week, but they have demonstrated the ability to be successful in that space. A year ago, we just didn’t have guys who could compete in that space."
At the linebacker spots, seniors Zach Watts and Nate Combs, along with sophomore Geoffrey Bacon, have a lot of responsibility. It is evident how valuable linebackers Steve Anderson in 2010 and Steve Erzinger had been last year. I asked Coach Ellerson during the conference who he sees stepping up to provide leadership on the field to the defensive unit:
“To be determined, but I would say Nate Combs has battled in there. Nate is directing the front and playing well. We need to give him a little bit of help on the perimeter. He’s had a long road to get to this senior year with a little bit of an injury background. Last year he played hard and really well at times, but was not always healthy. He was carrying around some of those former injuries then. Now those are behind him, and he has a chance to become very effective.”
The big difference you will see between the two teams Saturday is size on the offensive and defensive lines. Northern Illinois has an offensive line the size of an NFL team; Army plays with 240-pound offensive tackles.The option offense can be an equalizer because run blocking is based on the speed of the blocking lineman to explode out in front of the play rather than to passively get tossed around by the defense pass blocking.
What you will find interesting about the Army offensive formations is that they don't play with a tight end; just two wide receivers and five lineman. In past seasons, Army played with one or more slot-backs lined just beyond the tackles forming a strong side of the formation.
This year, Army is often playing a full-house backfield with the 2011 1,000-yard gainer junior Ray Maples, joined by sophomores Terry Baggett and 238-pound fullback Larry Dixon. This puts a lot of pressure on the blocking to come from the backfield.
It might be interesting to see if they would go with a two fullback look, adding the 2010 1,000-yard fullback Jared Hassin to the blocking mix with Dixon. Watch the play of the fullbacks clearing space for Steelman, Maples and Malcolm Brown if he returns.
Playing at Michie Stadium is as intimidating environment as anywhere in college football, but Army feels the expectations of its fans, history and what it represents. There are Generals on the sidelines, wounded warriors inspire them with talks, and as they play, many of their alumni are serving in dangerous places like Afghanistan. Coach Ellerson constantly reminds them to play one play at a time. At the press conference, he pointed out the key to managing expectations is to:
“Just relax and play. I think people were excited to watch a team that had some experience and loved to play. That would be fun to see. Seeing a bunch of guys go out there and worry about making mistakes or what somebody thinks is not worth the price of admission.”
Can Army pull an upset? Don't underestimate the impact for visitors coming into Michie Stadium. Army's turf is a big home field factor. It will take a nearly perfect game of ball control football by the offense, but this Army team has as an opportunity to a make a statement with a strong performance.
The game can be seen nationally on the CBS Sports Network.
Ken Kraetzer covers Army football for WVOX in New Rochelle, NY and Sons of the American Legion Press. Listen to his high school/college sports reports at 6:35 AM every Friday and Monday mornings on 1460 AM and available nationally on www.wvox.com.