December 9, 2012

Is Ellerson's Army team closer to matching up?

PHILADELPHIA -- Army head coach Rich Ellerson repeated a week before the 113th Army-Navy Game what he's been saying throughout his four years of rebuilding West Point's football program.

"We want to match up with the teams that are most similar to us, and we our gaining on them," said Ellerson of the service academy rivalries. "It looks like we are, but we have to prove it on Saturday."

In 2009, Ellerson inherited an Army football program that had dropped three straight to Air Force and seven in a row to Navy. The average score (rounded off) of the three losses to Air Force was 30-8. The average in the seven Navy defeats was 39-10.

Army clearly wasn't matching up under Ellerson's predecessors.

Despite finishing with a a 2-10 overall record this season, Army is now at least halfway to matching up: The Black Knights defeated Air Force 42-21 and had Navy beaten in the fourth quarter until they fell victim to Navy's new Captain Comeback, freshman quarterback Keenan Reynolds, and their own lethal fumble at Navy's 14-yard line in the final two minutes of the 17-13 loss Saturday at Lincoln Financial Field.

"The difference is the kicking game and the turnovers," Ellerson said. "Those are the things that correlate with success. Those are the things that are fundamental to the game. The scoreboard will reflect those things. It will reflect the kicking game. It will reflect turnovers."
 
Army hasn't yet matched the 2010 bowl season success when the Black Knights finished with a 7-6 record in Ellerson's second season, including a post-season victory over SMU in the Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl. But in that same season Army lost to Air Force 42-22 and Navy 31-17.

The 2011 and 2012 seasons have shown signs of finally matching up. There's another piece to the puzzle to get the wins in the close games Army is losing throughout the season and to Navy.
 
In 2011, Army was leading Air Force before second-half fumbles cost the Black Knights a 24-14 defeat. Against Navy, the Midshipmen needed two fourth-quarter field goals for a 27-21 victory.

Army could have won both the Navy 2011 and 2012 games if they could solve their problem with fumbles. The Black Knights lost three of four fumbles in 2011 and three of five in 2012.

The most costly 2012 fumble, of course, was with less than two minutes to play when Army had first-and-10 at the Navy 14-yard line and quarterback Trent Steelman and fullback Larry Dixon didn't cleanly exchange the handoff. A quarterback-fullback mesh is what they call it.

But it shouldn't be overlooked that from 2002 to 2010 Army was never in position to win in the final two minutes. In the 2007 and 2008 Navy victories -- the last two before Ellerson's arrival -- Army didn't even score a touchdown.

Navy rolled to wins with these kinds of comfortable margins: 2002, 58-12; 2003, 34-6; 2004, 42-13; 2005, 42-23; 2006, 26-14; 2007, 38-3; and 2008, 34-0.

In all of those games the losses were painful. But in none of them did the Black Knights feature a record-setting quarterback who was in anguish over coming so close to finally beating Navy.

"It's just unfortunate," said Steelman, a senior. "I don't know how else to put it. I feel like we deserved to win that game in every way possible but it just didn't happen. We were wearing them down and there was nothing that was going to stop us, but that's life. Things don't go your way sometimes."

Steelman will be missing next season from an offense that led the nation in rushing, but Army's passing game could receive a boost from A.J. Schurr. He moved up to No. 2 quarterback midway through his freshman season. He still has to show he can run the triple-option offense at a high level and read defenses, but he's displayed a stronger and more accurate arm than past Army quarterbacks.

Ellerson may be pressured into altering his staff in the offseason, but another change is the offense may need to throw the ball more to keep up with the Air Force and Navy versions of the triple-option.

Air Force has a history of throwing more than Army and Navy, but now that Reynolds has shown his accurate and strong arm, Navy's offense may open up, including shotgun formations. Air Force coach Troy Calhoun says Reynolds may be Navy's best passing quarterback since Roger Staubach won the Heisman Trophy in 1963.

The Black Knights enter the 2013 season seeking a second straight win over Air Force and to finally end an 11-game skid to Navy after two close calls.

Army is closer to matching up to Air Force and Navy than Ellerson's critics want to admit.

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