WEST POINT -- Will it be hypnotism? Mysticism? Give it the old college try? However Rich Ellerson tries to get through to his players, he intends to have them convinced they can beat Stanford.
“What they have to try to do is win the next snap,” said the Army head coach, whose team will host the Cardinal Saturday at Michie Stadium. “They don’t have to try to win the game. They need to win the next snap, the next situation, the next opportunity. Don’t believe what the scoreboard says good, bad or indifferent. Just get yourself in the moment and try to get a stop on the next snap, get a first down on the next snap, make a play on the next snap, whether it be a sky punt or an extra point, or when you’re defending the off-tackle play, or running the triple option. Whatever it is, let’s execute that on the next play. Keep yourself in the moment, and that’s where we start getting good. I told the guys yesterday, ‘Our mothers love us, but the only people in the room who think we’ve got a chance in this game are in the room.’ Throw that out, forget about it and let’s try to surprise mom on the next snap.”
If the Black Knights can stay within shouting distance of the nation’s fifth-ranked team they’d be surprising more than their mothers. But considering what the average cadet endures when he’s not on the football field, it’s not completely implausible. Granted, the Black Knights are playing the defending Rose Bowl champions. Granted, they are playing a team that leads the nation in rushing defense while Army’s primary offensive threat is on the ground. But Army has one other obstacle to overcome. Stanford ranks 10th in the nation – and first in the Pac-12 -- in the academic achievement of its players. This isn’t some proverbial football factory whose players haven’t determined their majors until they’re told that there is such a thing.
"Some of those guys have an academic profile that would look good here at West Point," Ellerson said.
But, he added, that’s where the comparisons end.
"Stanford doesn't look like West Point," he said. "A life in the day of a Stanford student is not a life and a day of a West Point cadet. That's where the similarities end. The SAT scores."
Fair enough. But Stanford successfully recruits players whose dreams of playing in the NFL are viable. Three of last season’s skill-position offensive players were drafted. Running back Stepfan Taylor was drafted in the fifth round by the Cardinals; tight ends Zach Ertz was a third-round pick of the Eagles and Levine Toilolo was selected in the fourth round by the Falcons. That trio accounted for 25 of Stanford's 42 offensive touchdowns last season. Quarterback Andrew Luck was the No. 1 pick in the draft last year, by the Colts. Further, there are nine players on the team whose fathers played in the NFL. But if anyone at Army is doing any similar sort of research they’ll be answering to Ellerson.
“We can’t afford to be reading the newspaper, whether it’s the clippings about us or about them,” he said. “We have to be about ourselves, doing things our way, doing things right because that’s when they are consistent on the football field. Maybe that was the challenge. Going into an opener against an opponent [Morgan State] that we didn’t know at all helped us focus on only ourselves and what we had to do in our preparation. Playing against Ball State, who we have played against for a couple of years and know them very well, perhaps we were looking beyond ourselves and spending too much time on who they were and what they were going to do. It has to be internal at this point of the game. That’s the way forward. If there is a lesson to take away from that then that is it. That’s the challenge for us. If we can go out there and play Army football with that poise and presence that we were talking about, if we can do those things, then it’ll be interesting to see what the score looks like.”
Ellerson surely hasn’t convinced the Las Vegas oddsmakers, who have Stanford listed as a 30-point favorite.
“What we really need to do is make sure our fullback [Larry Dixon] is on his track and is seeing the action key, and our quarterback [Angel Santiago] is confident and precise in the mesh,” he said. “Those are the things we need to do. We don’t need to draw another play in the dirt. I’m making the argument that we need to dump about half of the things we’re doing so that we’re unconsciously competent with those things. We don’t need another play. What we need to do is get the ball off the ground and try to do the right thing on the next snap, and if we can do that, we’ll be competitive.”
Competitive? Well, it’d be a good start.