Our pregame article called this "Crisis Week" for the West Point football team. After a euphoric win over Northwestern of the Big Ten Conference two weeks ago, a devastating 48-21 loss at Ball State left the team with a record of 1-2 and a loss of confidence regarding many areas of their game.
To turn around their season, the Cadets needed to find a way to beat Tulane in order to stay in the hunt for the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl in San Francisco on Dec. 31st, which they are contracted to play in if they reach six wins.
After a rough first series on defense, this game exceeded expectations with sound, and in some cases dominating, performances by virtually every area of the team.
It rained for most of the pregame but started to let up as the kickoff approached. The Cadets wore their rain protection during the pregame parade march onto Blaik Field at Michie Stadium.
At each West Point football game, one of the four regiments of the Corps of Cadets marches onto the field. They salute the Flag, conduct a cheer called the "Rocket" and before leaving proclaim as a unit, "We Are Army!"
The three Army Captains, No. 9 Steve Erzinger, No. 42 Andrew Rodriguez and No. 11 Max Jenkins, enter Blaik Field. Both Erzinger and Rodriguez are starting linebackers. Max Jenkins is the back-up quarterback and the deputy Brigade Commander.
Each of these players is extraordinary in different ways. Erzinger went into the game as the leading tackler on the team, with the next best having 30 less stops. He has provided stability and leadership to a very young defensive unit.
Andrew Rodriguez is playing this year having recovered from back surgery which sidelined him for all of the 2010 season. He is an outstanding student, with a 4.1 GPA, and was just nominated as a candidate for the Campbell Award, given by the National Football Foundation to the college football's best student-athlete.
Max Jenkins, besides filling the role of back-up to Trent Steelman, is the Deputy Brigade Commander, the No. 2 Cadet in the chain of command, which runs the 4,400 member Corps of Cadets.
With great fanfare, the Army team is escorted onto the field by their cheerleaders, flag carriers and the Army Mule mascot. The team will enter between two rows of fellow cadets and touch a plaque which quotes Gen. George Marshall from World War II:
"I want an officer for a secret and dangerous mission, I want a West Point football player".
One of the Army players is selected to carry an American Flag onto the field for each home game, which is considered a great honor. The Black Knights also carry the flag of the Army unit which they honor that day by wearing their logo on their uniform sleeve.
Tulane received the opening kickoff. No. 17 Eric Osteen handles the kickoffs for the Black Knights and is averaging 63.1 yards per kick with six touch backs in 17 chances coming into the Tulane game. The Cadets start to sit in the East Stands at Michie Stadium, which creates a wonderful backdrop for those sitting in the double-decked west stands or viewing on television.
The presence of several thousand cadets along with the Cadet Spirit Band, located right behind the opponents bench, creates quite a bit of home field atmosphere.
Army is averaging 372 yards per game rushing the football. They have been running the ball by committee, with Trent Steelman taking many of the short yardage situations, and Malcom Brown, Ray Maples, Jared Hassin and Larry Dixon all contributing and spreading around the work load.
In this game we saw Steelman carry the ball fewer times with the Black Knights moving out to a sizable lead.
On the opening drive, Tulane went the length of the field in three plays. The drive was led by a 67-yard run by Orleans Darkwa, who then scored on next play. At that moment it looked like a long day for the Army defense.
Tulane missed the extra point attempt leaving the game at 6-0 with just 1:06 gone on the game clock.
Trent Steelman has led an Army offense which has been consistent in running the ball using the option. This means that the QB has the option during the play to handoff to the fullback diving straight up the middle, pitch the ball to a slotback or run the ball himself.
The Black Knight offense got off to a fast start on their first possession, led by the running of Ray Maples, Jared Hassin and Trent Steelman. At the Tulane 14-yard line, Hassin converted a third down and three with a nine-yard run.
Larry Dixon completes the drive with a two-yard scoring run. Alex Carleton kicked the extra point to give Army a 7-6 lead.
Dixon, a freshman from Bremerton, Washington, has been taking some of the workload off the shoulders of junior Jared Hassin this year.
On defense, junior AJ Mackey and sophomore Holt Zalneraitis have been asked to hold down the middle of the Army defense line. After the opening drive, the Army defense held the Tulane running game to just 55 yards gained.
Although normally a free safety, sophomore Tyler Dixon has been playing in the second row in recent games as a middle linebacker. In the Black Knights' defense the linebackers are constantly moving around, so designations are limited in what they tell you.
Tyler is a strong tackler with eight plays made against Tulane. He is now second on the team with 12 solo tackles and 17 assists for a total of 29.
One of the activities you see at West Point games are the introductions of veterans, faculty and members of the base "Garrison" who have recently returned from deployments overseas.
The "Garrison" are the soldiers who are assigned to West Point as an Army base.
As mentioned earlier, the Army linebackers move around on every play in the "Eagle Flex Defense" and No. 22 Nate Combs, playing the WHIP position, was often seen standing right over center looking into the eyes of the Tulane quarterback. Nate has eight solo tackles, four assists and one sack on the year.
Army QB Trent Steelman scored two touchdowns in the second quarter to take Army to a 21-6 lead at the half.
The first came following Josh Jackson's interception of a Ryan Griffin pass at the Tulane 49. He ran it back 36 yards to the Tulane 13. After a Ray Maples' 11-yard run to the Tulane 2, Steelman ran the ball himself two yards for the score.
Two drives later, Army went 70 yards on ten plays, capped off by another short run by Steelman for Artmy's third score of the day.
With Army spreading the workload in the backfield, Malcolm Brown carried just five times against Tulane, but gained 35 yards for an average of seven yards per carry.
On the season, Malcolm has 303 yards gained and is sixth in the NCAA in yards per carry, with an 8.7 average per attempt.
Two young players who are making important contributions to the West Point offense are freshman center Ryan Powis, who stepped in as the starter against Tulane, and freshman Terry Baggett, who is adding depth to the backfield.
Baggett, from Chicago, has stepped in because of the leg injury to an other freshman back, Trenton Turrentine.
Powis, who originally came to West Point as an outside linebacker from Midlothian, Virginia, has stepped in as the third center working with Trent Steelman this year.
The West Point Band is one of the few professional bands you will see representing their school at college games. They are composed of professional musicians who have auditioned for acceptance and must go through Army basic training like everyone else. They play concerts year round, both at West Point and around the region. You will often see them at Yankee Stadium playing the National Anthem for opening day or playoff games.
They play a pregame medley of music for each home game. One of the nice touches is that they play a number in honor of the visiting team. Often, they will provide a halftime show for the crowd at Michie Stadium.
There was a time, probably the first hundred years of West Point's history, that every Cadet learned to ride a horse. Think of General Custer. Now, we still have two beautifully maintained ponies who attend the games and delight the young fans who stop by to pet them.
In the second half, Army scored 10 more unanswered points to take a 31-6 lead in the game.
First, Army went 89 yards in five plays, topped off by a 40-yard Trent Steelman pass to senior Davyd Brooks. Then, Alex Carleton booted a 23-yard field goal, his first of the year.
Early in the the fourth quarter, sophomore Ray Maples topped the day by leading Army with a net of 141 yards gained and a touchdown of his own. Maples completed a 63-yard, five-play Army drive with a 23-yard touchdown run seven seconds into the final period, giving Army a 38-6 lead.
Joe Steffy was a first-team All-American in 1947, when he received the Outland Trophy as the best lineman in the country. He blocked for Army's Heisman Trophy winners Doc Blanchard and Glenn Davis.
Steffy was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1987 and had his No. 61 retired by Army in 2009. He died at age 85 in May.
His family presented his Outland Trophy to Bob Beretta of West Point's Athletic Department during the homecoming game. It was a thrill just to see the trophy.
The option offense depends on the tackles ability to make blocks allowing the ball carriers to turn the corner upfield. One of the solid performers on Army's rebuilt offensive line is senior Mike McDermott, a 6'6" 269-pound player from Stewartsville, NJ.
The Army offense had another strong day against Tulane gaining 353 yards rushing and 70 yards passing. They helped Army \control the clock for 35 minutes and 30 seconds of the game.
The Black Knights had five touchdowns rushing, one passing and Alex Carlton's first field goal of the season.
West Point Alma Mater is performed after every game. The players line up in front of the Corps of Cadets in the stands.
Seeing the 4,000 members of the Corps of Cadets stand straight with their hats at their side singing their alma mater is a moving sight.
A great show of respect by the Tulane players and staff, who stood behind the Army players while the West Point Alma Mater was played. Excellent example of sportsmanship.
Larry Dixon, the freshman fullback from Bremerton, Washington, had a big day, scoring West Point's first touchdown, running for 30 yards on six carries and catching a 25-yard pass.
Coach Ellerson looked relaxed after the game, which was different from even the Northwestern game.
I asked the coach how the defense had made such a big improvement from the week before and how the Tulane passing game had been held to less than 100 yards on the day.
“I think they took some adjustments. We’re still running our system, but we presented a four-shell look. We gave them four across on the back row with the ability to push some help out on our corners. We matched up with some personnel. We put JJ on their go-to guy and made them hold up in some situations, a little bit on an island. We had to take that extra linebacker out of the secondary, or pushing out to help the corners"
Army has still not really found a replacement for nose tackle Mike Gann, who graduated last year. They played a two man line with Andrew Rodriguez sometimes going to a three point stance at his end position. Talking about the offense line, the coach said:
"We put a little more pressure on those guys up front, but we got off the nose. We don’t play nose tackle very well, so we quit trying to pretend we do and did a little more zipping and zapping. I think when you play well on the back end, you’ll always see some good things happening pressure-wise. We got some hits on the quarterback. We had him uncomfortable. I don’t think he was comfortable with what he was looking at.”
Army made a number of changes on the offensive line, with freshman Ryan Powis coming in at center and right guard Robert Kava taking over for Joe Bailey, who suffered a broken leg in the Ball State game. I asked the coach how the new players had been able to fit in and play well:
“Frankly, we were a little frustrated. We didn’t think we were doing a great job early in the game. We kept hammering away at it, but we felt like there was more there. Obviously, losing Joe last week hurts us as a football team, but it creates an opportunity for some other guys. Ryan Powis was one of those guys who stepped in last week. He’s someone who we had high expectations for coming in this year. Being a freshman and playing in the offensive line as a freshman is hard anywhere. So, maybe we didn’t pull the trigger as early in the season as we could have with him, but he had that opportunity last week and he convinced us that he was good for it. He’s a special talent.”
In high school, I was briefly a placekicker, so they have a special affinity for me. Alex Carlton had missed three straight field goal attempts so far this year after making his last 11 attempts in 2010. I asked the coach the importance of Carlton gaining back his confidence with this successful field goal.
“That doesn’t surprise me. He was striking the ball well, he really was. He’s practiced well. Alex is way too smart to be a kicker. Kickers, golfers and actors, you don’t want to be too smart. He’s brilliant and he was thinking so hard about what was happening and this angle and that angle. You just have to out there and swing the club and he does it especially well. But it’s not his personality. His personality is to be very analytical. He’s obviously been very hard on himself, but he’s fought through all of that. He really has been striking the ball well here for a couple weeks, so I’m not surprised that he’s doing that.”
The Homecoming Day win over Tulane was a must win for the Black Knights to keep their hopes alive to play in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl in San Francisco on New Year's Eve.
Army travels this week to Oxford, Ohio to play the Miami RedHawks with a chance to even their record to 3-3. Again, this really is a must win for Army in order to keep their bowl hopes on track. Even with a win they will still need to find three wins amongst a home game versus Fordham and road and neutral site games against the likes of Vanderbilt, Air Force, Temple and Rutgers.
The key this week is to show that they can play well on the road against a team desperate for a win themselves. This Army team continues to grow and gain experience each week. The offense is in as good a shape as any Army team since the great teams of the early to mid-90's. The defense is still a work in progress, but getting better at covering the deep pass and protecting the middle of the line.
Should be fun to watch on Saturday. Get your tickets early for the last home game against Fordham on October 29th.
Ken Kraetzer provides weekly pregame, postgame and special feature coverage of the three-time national champion Army football team on Bleacherreport.com.
He conducts the West Point Football Report Tuesday at 5:30 PM EST on WVOX 1460 AM in New Rochelle, NY. the program is heard nationally on WVOX.com. Ken can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.