Thomas Holloway was headed for practice Tuesday. Not surprisingly, the discussion turned towards the Army – Navy game.
“Yesterday one of my teammates and I were walking to the locker room,” the Army senior linebacker said, “and I simply asked, `How are you doing?' and he said, `Ready to change history.' That was the first thing that came out of his mouth. I really think that encapsulates our approach and what it's going to mean to us. It's been a fair number of years, and a win would totally change the season and the perception of this team. I think we have all the tools necessary. I think we all have the right attitude moving forward."
If attitude was all the Black Knights needed to win, they’d be in the midst of a 124-year winning streak. Alas, football still requires that players utilize more than their heads and hearts, which explains why Army will enter its annual classic against the Midshipmen Dec. 14 with a record of 3-8. Of even greater concern is that a senior on this team would have been a fourth grader in 2001, the last year Army defeated Navy. The 11-game streak is the longest in the series’ history.
One thing Army coach Rich Ellerson has tried to minimize is any carry-over effect from last year’s loss, a game the Black Knights were just yards from winning. With less than a minute remaining and Army trailing 17-13, the Black Knights had driven to the Navy 14 yard line when the ball came loose on the exchange between quarterback Trent Steelman and fullback Larry Dixon. Navy recovered and ran the clock out.
"I'm trying to squelch that,” Ellerson said. “There are a lot of back stories to this football game. My message to the guys is that this is the first time these two teams have played. There are some guys on this team and on their team that played in last year's game, but this 2013 team has never stepped on the field against this 2013 Navy team. There is a story and a history associated with this game, but that doesn't step out between the white lines. Maybe that can help you in your preparation. Maybe that's part of the culture that has brought you to this point, but when you get to the game, play the game."
The manner in which the Black Knights played Saturday against Hawaii certainly didn’t help their preparation for Navy. Playing a team that had been winless in 11 games and permitting it to get out to a 28-7 half-time lead on its way to a 49-42 victory was surely no way to lay a foundation for facing the Midshipmen.
"I told the team after the game that they have a choice,” Ellerson said. “You can choose to be the team you were in the first half, or you can choose to be the team you were in the second half. And it is a choice because so much of it is how you handle adversity. Hawaii didn't stop making plays and they didn't stop being big and strong in the second half, but we handled it better. When they made a play, we dusted ourselves off and tried to win the next one. In the first half, I felt that when things weren't going our way, we were carrying that around like it was a weight on our shoulders as opposed to just playing the next snap. Later on, the guys just kind of let it go and started having some fun. We won the third and fourth quarter, but we were down so badly in the first half that we couldn't bounce back on the scoreboard. Sometimes the look on your face when your opponent makes a play will tell you how you're doing. If you can handle them making a play and stay on balance and not start to freak out or get down on yourself or get down your teammates then you'll be just fine. Unfortunately, we've had too many opportunities to learn that, but I think that's what you saw in the second half."
“This season has shown us that we can get beat by the unlikeliest of opponents when we don't play our game, but when we do play our game, we can beat anybody,” Holloway said. “If we focus on our game and the way we do things, and focus on things we can control like practicing really well, that we are up to the task that lies ahead."
Of course, when preparing for Navy, focus is multiplied exponentially.
“Both teams are playing for so much more than themselves,” Army senior offensive tackle Michael Kime said. “It's so much bigger than just football when you think about what the game represents. Both teams know that this isn't the final stop in their careers. Some people have college football as the crowning moment of their lives, but for us, we all have that next step where we become commissioned in the military. That's our ultimate goal."
And while Ellerson continues to preach the one-game-at-a-time, past-is-past mindset, his players haven’t hit the delete key from last year’s game.
“We saw how close we were to victory, and it slipped away like that,” Kime said. “Some of the emotions are still there for some of the guys who have been there, but we have a whole new group of guys, and they have a whole new group of guys as well. It's a new game every year."