The Army football team looks for its first win of the year against Boston College on Saturday at Michie Stadium before what is expected to be a near sellout crowd of over 35,000.
Army's offense has been inconsistent. Although ranked No. 2 in the country in rushing the football and gaining 367 yards per game, Army is only converting that performance to 21.8 points per game—not enough to make up for a struggling defense.
While quarterback Trent Steelman, slot-back Ray Maples, and fullback Larry Dixon have been productive with the running game, Army has fumbled 13 times, losing the ball six times. Last week they fumbled four times in Stony Brook territory. Two fumbles were within the ten yard line—a formula for disaster. Not only does loss of the football end potential scoring drives, but it puts extreme pressure on the defense that has not appeared ready for prime time.
The nature of the option offense is more moving parts than in most contemporary offenses. The quarterback is running the ball himself and accumulating hits that take a toll as the games and season progress. The pitch-outs are riskier to complete than a normal handoff, and the quarterback may already be engaged with a tackler while trying to toss the ball. The advantage is that small but fast linemen can get a step ahead on blocks and tie up larger opponents.
Navy is having the same problem with their offense: Senior quarterback Trey Miller has committed 10 of Navy's 12 turnovers on the season. Miller was benched in last week's San Jose State game in favor of freshman Keenan Reynolds.
In summer practice I watched as Army head coach Ellerson told his players before they ran through offensive plays, "Keep the ball off the ground!"
Of course, that's easier said than done, especially in the high speed world of top-level college football. What has been puzzling is that Army's ball handlers are veterans, Steelman and Maples are seniors and Larry Dixon is a mature, game-hardened sophomore.
You have to believe that playing with injuries is a factor in holding onto the ball when hit.
At Tuesday's media session Coach Ellerson did not take well to my question about how to work with players on preventing fumbles in mid-season. In my brief football days, fumbles in games led to extremely unpleasant drills in the next practice.
Coach Ellerson described Saturday's four fumbles—which each stopped potential scoring drives—as aberrations saying:
"That's not us. I'm not going to get into what happened in each instance, but we just don't do that. You can watch us practice for days and the ball doesn't touch the ground. Those were fundamental mistakes. We drop a pitch or screw up a mesh. We've done that 10,000 times and never seen anything like what happened on that particular play. We have people trying to leave the system or do something heroic."
A team that loses its first four games is, in many cases, in danger of losing confidence for success on the year. At Army there are always the Air Force and Navy games in the second half of the season to look forward to and prepare for. Coach Ellerson addressed a question on keeping the team ready to play:
"They're coming to grips with just how difficult this game is. As you know, we've got some guys playing a lot football for the first time. The only challenge that will see us not continue to play well is (1) if we can't keep the same guys on the field because of injury situations or (2) we stop having fun".
Coach Ellerson mentioned a key characteristic of life at West Point and imaginably at the other military academies: Football is the fun part of the day, which is otherwise filled, morning to night, with military drill, inspections, classes, study, marching and assigned duties for the cadets.
A loss or bad day on the football field is forgotten upon heading to study the engineering, information technologies, and leadership courses these athletes take.
The Boston College Eagles are 1-3 on the year with a win over Maine, but have suffered losses to Miami, Northwestern and last week to Clemson 45-31 at home. This team can throw the football: Quarterback Chase Rettig is ranked No. 10 among BCS passers with 97 completions of 170 attempts, for 1,292 yards and nine touchdowns. The Eagles average 330 yards per game in the air but just 84 yards per contest on the ground.
The priority for Army is to set up No. 22 "Bandit" linebacker Sr. Nate Combs up to run into holes and make plays in the backfield, keeping pressure on Rettig. Otherwise, the Black Knights will have their freshmen in the secondary—No. 3 Chris Carnegie, No. 30 Brandon Fusilier-Jeffries, and No. 23 Alex Meier—tested often by deep throws and first down-generating sideline patterns. Sophomore Marques Avery has joined the backfield and looks like a player for Army.
About defending against the potent BC passing attack, Coach Ellerson said:
"This will be the most sophisticated passing attack we've seen so far. (Chase) Rettig is a practiced quarterback, who is very confident, has tremendous arm strength and go-to receivers. They are still very balanced and will run the ball and do some things in the run game that have been troublesome for us. Like a lot of people in college football, they're very creative in their sets and motions. They'll look to create match-ups and disadvantages numerically."
On defense, BC is giving up 436 yards per game and 28 points. Sr. Linebacker Nick Clancy averages over 13 tackles per game, the second most in the BCS. Jr. LB Kevin Pierre-Louis is another top player averaging 11 tackles per game. BC will play Georgia Tech, another option team, in two weeks so learning to stop the option offense Army has perfected is a priority.
About his overall approach to the game, coach Ellerson said:
"Offensively, if we can execute our offense and take care of the football, we'll create problems for them. We're just unique enough that if we operate and do all the things good football teams do, we can be competitive. We present a different enough challenge that their coaches will respect us, whether or not we deserve that. They'll see enough things on tape that will make them take pause, dig in and compete."
What is unique about the West Point football team is the people it represents in current and past military service who they meet and hear from during the season. At any given practice or pregame meeting, you may see a senior official of the Army, alumni back from service overseas, or "Wounded Warriors." The team knows how alumni serving overseas will do anything they can to watch their games on television.
There is also the constant pressure of being part of the Corps of Cadets. The extreme disappointment of losing was visible in the face of sophomore defensive tackle Mike Ugenyi walking off the Michie Stadium field after losing to Northern Illinois by one point.
Coach Ellerson addressed several questions about the (0-4) start to the season, the many groups the team hears from, and how he manages the expectations that comes with the high visibility of representing West Point and the Army,
"We're trying to be 1-0 this week. Period. If you try to be 1-0 this week, you might be. The record is for somebody else to think about, write about or talk about. It's a constant tug-of-war for me to make sure that my voice resonates throughout. There are a lot of voices around these guys and a lot of people pulling at them. All of them are well-meaning, but there is a disconnect between the reality of what Saturday represents and the challenge that is out there on Saturday. "
Army is almost a ten-point underdog in this game but has a chance to win if it can play ball-control offense and finish drives without turnovers. On defense they will get burned by the BC passing attack unless they can mount a pass rush—most likely from Sr. linebacker Nate Combs. Getting out to an early lead and avoiding giving up long running plays early in the game would help.
Army plays tough at home and needs to remember its wins in the past two seasons at home against major conference foes Vanderbilt and Northwestern. It could happen again this week.
Army Notes: The Sept. 28, 2013 road matchup with Louisiana Tech has been moved to Dallas, TX and the Cotton Bowl Stadium under the banner of the Heart of Texas Kickoff Classic.
National Football Foundation Hall of Famer and former Army head coach Jim Young will be the guest this week on the West Point Football Report, to be aired Tuesday at 5 PM EST on WVOX in New Rochelle, NY.
Listen in on www.WVOX.com.