2010 has been Army's best football season in 14 years achieving six wins and Thursday's appearance in the Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl to be played in Dallas, TX. West Point's last winning season and appearance in a bowl game was in 1996 when Bob Sutton's Black Knights went 10 and 2 and played in the Independence Bowl against Auburn.
Head coach Rich Ellerson, in his second year has been able to lead Army to a 6-6 record, realizes that a final season record of 7-6 would be light years better than 6-7, is focused on the goal of defeating Southern Methodist, commented before Christmas "We're trying to win the game. Everything we're doing and everything we're talking about is based on how to end up with more points than SMU."
Although the team has had nearly three weeks to prepare since the Dec. 11th game with Navy, finals and leave limited the team to four practices at West Point. Coach Ellerson was pleased the team had a spirited one on the final day before the team disbursed home for holiday leave, "We practiced some shorter practices through the week. On Saturday, there was a feeling that we might have one foot out the door as we tried to back up. We got into full pads and had a pretty fundamental, physical practice. Coming off the field we said 'That's the best practice we've had in two years.' The guys were excited. Obviously, they were excited about what was going to happen later that day - that they were going to get to go on leave, but clearly, they enjoy the game. They enjoy one another. They prepared especially well. Again, you don't have to talk these guys into wanting to play football."
Army goes into the game as a one touchdown underdog, here are 8 keys to achieve an upset over SMU:
1. Limit SMU's passing Game: SMU has a big play offense led by 6' 4" sophomore quarterback Kyle Padron who has thrown for 29 touchdowns this year and 3,559 yards. The Mustangs average 274 yards per game in the air. Army may not be able to stop this aerial attack all day but must limit the big plays SMU can achieve.
2. Get a pass rush on the SMU QB: Against Rutgers Army had eight sacks 2.5 by senior co-captain Josh McNary, since then opponents have been double teaming McNary limiting his impact. The time Navy's QB Ricky Dobbs had to throw was a big factor in their two first half touchdowns that put Army in a 17-0 deficit early in that game. Watch for West Point to implement new blitz schemes to rush Padron with linebackers Stephen Anderson and Steve Erzinger.
3. Stop the SMU running game. Stopping the run has a been a key to West Point's success this year. SMU features the running of sophomore Zach Lane who has gained 1,391 yards on the ground with a 6.1 yard average per carry. Playing week after week against offensive lines averaging 300 pounds per player, the Black Knights have yielded just 141 yards rushing per game. Nose tackle Mike Gann holds down the middle of the line often tying up multiple blockers to allow the linebackers make the plays.
4. Keep the SMU offense off the field: This story of this game could be the Army defense versus the SMU offense. Simply controlling the clock by keeping the SMU drives short and handing the ball to the offense will be key. Army has maintained a 7:10 minute time of possession advantage over opponents this season.
5. Dominate the game by running the ball: The Army offense has been averaging 256 yards per game and 4.5 yards per carry in 2010. This consistent ground game has enabled the Black Knights to score 33 touchdowns on the ground this season a huge improvement over the 13 TDs scored on the ground last year. Sophomore fullback Jared Hassin has been a big part of the Black Knight attack with 931 yards gained and 9 TDs.
6. Make the key conversion plays: Sophomore Quarterback Trent Steelman has provided a combined 1,659 yards passing and running for the Black Knights. Coach Ellerson often calls on Steelman to carry the ball himself for key plays leading to strong rates of 72% fourth down conversions and 71% red zone touchdowns.
7. Generate Turnovers: Coach Ellerson preaches the need to win the takeover battle. The Black Knights have generated 12 pass interceptions this year led by the five of senior Donovan Travis and four of another senior Richard King. Steelman has thrown only three in 2010 by comparison. Army has also recovered four more fumbles than opponents this year.
8. Position Carlton for a Big Kick: Army junior placekicker, Alex Carlton has had a very strong second half of the season making his last ten field goal attempts including a 42 yarder versus Navy. Army likes their odds, if they need to send Carlton out for a difference making kick late in the game.
Congratulations to Army's defensive standout Mike Gann who graduated on Dec. 17th and received his commission as a Second Lieutenant.
Great job by the players, spirit band, and cheerleaders who went out DFW Airport during the week and welcomed home soldiers returning from deployments overseas.
Members of the team and the cheerleaders also visited Cook Children's Hospital in Fort Worth on Tuesday afternoon. The Black Knights visited with patients, distributed gifts and took a bevy of photos with the children and parents in attendance. "Coming here to the bowl game, we've found that the best part of the experience so far - aside from the game of course - has been being able to reach out to others," said sophomore RT Benjamin Jebb. "Being able to spend a couple hours with some kids that might be going through a rough time is great. It's a really humbling experience."
Many Army officials and soldiers expected to be on hand from the large Texas Army bases at Fort Hood in Bell County, Fort Bliss in El Paso County, Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio and Fort Sill in Lawton, OK.
Army and SMU kickoff at 12:05 p.m. ET on Thursday. The game will be televised live on ESPN.
Ken Kraetzer conducts the West Point Football Report for Sons of the American Legion Radio on radio station WVOX 1460 in New Rochelle, NY heard nationally on WVOX.com. Listen to interviews conducted with Brant Ringler, Executive Director of the Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl and West Point graduate John Garrison, President and CEO of Bell Helicopter Company on www.legionpost50ny.com. Ken can be reached at email@example.com