“Saturday night’s game in New York City brings together three icons of American sports—Army football, Notre Dame and Yankee Stadium.”
That’s how Army coach Rich Ellerson described the upcoming game for his West Point team, now eligible for a bowl game for the first time since 1996.
“We will have no problem getting the players excited and motivated to play this week,” the second-year Black Knights coach added.
For college football fans with a sense of nostalgia, Saturday night’s contest in the Bronx reminds them of great games played between the two schools over close to 100 years.
It all started in 1913, with the first game played between the two at West Point. Notre Dame unveiled a passing game, which surprised the host Cadets and the Irish won, 35 to 13. The legend grew with the 1928 inspirational “Win one for the Gipper” speech by coach Knute Rockne.
During the era from the 1920s through the 1940s, Yankee Stadium was often the big stage of not just baseball, but college football as well. The Giants would move there in the 1950s, creating more historic football moments.
Memories of this rivalry, for me, focus on the stories my uncle Warren told about going to the Army-Notre Dame games at Yankee Stadium after the end of World War II. He had gone to West Point in the late 1930s, but did not graduate and was commissioned to the Army through Officers Candidate School in 1942, with my Dad at Fort Sill in Oklahoma.
Warren commanded an artillery unit at the Battle of the Bulge, liberated a Polish prisoner of war camp and returned home expecting to be part of the invasion of Japan scheduled for November 1945. Instead, on November 10th, he was back home in the Bronx watching Army defeat Notre Dame, 48-0, in what had to have been a triumphant atmosphere at Yankee Stadium.
My Dad served with the 91st Infantry Division during WWII, liberating northern Italy, and he went on to retire a lieutenant colonel. He enjoyed going to events at West Point, and I believe he wanted to have gone to school there, like his brother.
I took him to the Army-Notre Dame game at Giants Stadium on October 14, 1995, and we climbed into seats high in a corner of the end zone. Lou Holtz’s Irish went out to 28-7 third-quarter lead, but Army roared back with three touchdowns to come within an extra point of tying the game with 39 seconds to play.
There was no overtime back then—Army decided to go for two and the win. Army QB Ronnie McAda went back and threw to the right side to tight end Ron Leshinski, who caught the ball on the 1 and turned toward the goal line for what would have been an upset win for the ages.
While we watched this happening in the end zone corner just below us, ND cornerback Ivory Covington came up and hit the 240-pound Leshinski at the goal line and drove him to the field side of the flag. The game-saving play by Covington allowed the Irish to hold on for a 28-27 win, preserving their opportunity to go to a bowl game that year and a multimillion dollar fee.
Last week's 45-28 victory on the road at Kent State gives Coach Ellerson's team six victories for the first time since 1996 and makes them eligible to play in a postseason bowl game, possibly in Dallas or Washington, D.C. A bowl bid means a lot to a team dominated by seniors who play knowing they will be taking on the responsibilities of Army officers after graduation, with the likelihood of serving in war zones soon after.
Just last week, the Army "Firsties," as they are called, learned which branches of the Army they will be serving in after graduation. These players have endured and grown from the military challenges thrown in front of them by the Academy training process. They have blossomed under Coach Ellerson, who embraces the West Point culture as the son and brother of graduates. It means they will be able to enjoy playing football for a few more weeks beyond the Navy game in mid-December. This means a lot to the players, the future of the program and their alumni, like Lt. Col. Christopher "Sam" Houston, preparing for a deployment in the spring, who does the Academy cheer called "The Rocket" in his backyard after each win.
The invitation might come from the Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl that will be played in Dallas, Texas on Dec. 30, 2010. That will depend on either the Mountain West Conference or Conference USA being unable to provide an eligible member to play in the game. Another possibility will be the Military Bowl presented by Northrup Grumman in Washington, D.C. on Dec. 29. In any case, West Point will be coveted by bowl sponsors because of the national following the team can draw.
Army goes into Yankee Stadium with respect for their opponent but optimistic about being competitive. Coach Ellerson commented, “Year-in and year-out, that’s the gold standard of college football. Once upon a time when we were at Arizona, we had a great year in the early ‘90s and we had gone to the Fiesta Bowl and were a top five team. We said this was a breakthrough for us, now we can recruit with those guys. There were nine guys that year that we were recruiting that Notre Dame was recruiting—all nine of them went to Notre Dame, nothing had changed. That is the gold standard, that’s brand name, Notre Dame is brand name.”
When I called into Mike Francesa’s radio show on WFAN in NY on Thursday, he asked me why is Army better than in the past?
My response started with Army's two key sophomores on offense. The option attack has been superbly run by QB Trent Steelman from Bowling Green, Kentucky, who has scored 11 rushing touchdowns, has only one interception all year and has the confidence of the coach to carry the ball himself to make key first downs.
Fullback No. 7 Jared Hassin, from Delafield, Wisconsin, has become a breakaway threat, running for an average of 5.7 yards per carry. He has gained 858 yards on the season and scored nine touchdowns. Steelman was able to open up the passing game against the Flashes with 149 yards in the air, including four completions to his wideouts, sophomore No. 84 George Jordan from Marlborough, Massachusetts, and junior No. 13 David Brooks from Newburgh, NY, including a 41-yard gain, the team's longest pass play of the year. This threat of a pass will help keep the Irish from loading up their line to stop the run.
On defense, West Point continues to depend on the solid play of senior nose tackle No. 93 Mike Gann, from Roswell, Georgia, to neutralize the over-sized offensive lines the Cadets seem to run into each week. West Point excels at stopping the run, giving up an average of only 140 yards per game. This stingy defense is led by senior linebacker No. 50 Stephen Anderson from Ijamsville, Maryland, and junior linebacker No. 9 Steve Erzinger from Houston, Texas. Anderson is the inspirational leader of Army and is all over the field making plays, leading the team with 72 tackles. The Black Knights will need a big effort rushing the ND quarterback from senior linebacker No. 44 Josh McNary, also from Houston, who leads the team with 9.5 sacks on the year.
West Point has continued to benefit from consistent play from its kicking game. If a kick could make the difference, junior Alex Carleton from Wilmington, Delaware, is ready for the mission. Carleton has now made eight straight field goals. With 6:29 left against Kent State, he kicked a season-long 49-yarder that iced the game for Army. Senior punter No.18 Jonathan Bulls, from Fairfax Station, Virginia, not only is kicking long, deep spirals, but has learned the art of directional punts to the sides of the field preached by Coach Ellerson.
The Black Knights are visiting Yankee Stadium for a walk around the park so they will feel at home come game time Saturday night. Their coach adds, “Nobody is coming to watch us be a tourist or be impressed, they’re coming to watch us play and represent the institution and that’s what we need to make sure we do.”
A lot of soldiers past and present will be rooting on the “Brave Old Army Team.”
The author hosts hosts the "West Point Football Report" broadcast every Tuesday night at 5:30 PM during the season on WVOX 1460 AM in NY and heard worldwide on WVOX.com. He can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org