WEST POINT – If the average football coach were an art critic, he could find flaws in the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. What do you mean Michelangelo spent four years on his back? Think that made him tough?
Army’s Rich Ellerson is no exception.
“It’s hard to win a football game no matter where you are,” he said. “What makes it hard to win are those things that we talk about all the time. And we’re playing good teams. We respect the game, and we know how hard it is to win. We’re doing the hard things, but not all the hard things. We can eliminate some of those penalties. We can eliminate some of the challenges on defense. The guys certainly know it’s hard to win a football game, but they are willing to do just that.”
The willingness to win games is certainly evident, but the ability to do so has been lacking. When the Black Knights face Louisiana Tech Saturday at the Cotton Bowl they will be facing a team whose problems are almost a reflection of Army. Both teams are 1-3. Both have been routed once. Both have had trouble scoring. Both are facing that all-too-often-conundrum of deciding on a No. 1 quarterback. And, perhaps most important, both teams face the possibility of another loss resulting in their season evolving into a lost cause.
“We’re going to have to continue to improve,” Ellerson said. “Offensively, we’re going to be looking at some things we’ve been looking at since last spring in preparation for our season. There are some wrinkles about [Louisiana Tech] that are unique, but there are some things about every opponent that are unique. We’re going to have to adapt to whatever we get from them defensively. Some of the things that have been driving us crazy are very fundamental things that have slipped away from us.”
Some of those fundamental things have been unavoidable. The possible season-ending injury to Army’s top running back, Raymond Maples. The inevitability of Army almost always being undersized relative to its opponent (this week, it’ll be Army’s 254-pound-average defensive linemen vs. the Bulldogs’ average offensive linemen checking in at 296). Trying to break in two quarterbacks with very limited playing time entering the season. As is his custom, Ellerson tried to personally absorb part of the blame.
“I did a poor job offensively with respect to what we had to accomplish last week,” he said. “We were trying to mitigate some of the missing pieces in the backfield. We needed to have another plan for that nose tackle [Nikita Whitlock]. We’ve been playing against good nose tackles for the last couple of weeks, but I did not see that coming. We were successful on the defensive side of the ball of adding some things that helped us get through some tough personnel moments. We failed to do that offensively. When we’re playing against good defensive football teams, like we are again this week, we’ve got to find ways to get ourselves on a smaller field. Between turnovers, penalties, and some good work by our opponent, we put ourselves on an increasingly long field.”
That becomes even more of a priority when facing a team that might not score much, but is good at returning the favor.
“When you’re playing against a good defense, the only way to compensate for that is big plays and we don’t have a lot of big plays in us right now,” Ellerson said. “Some of those big-play guys aren’t playing. If we’re going to go down the field at four yards a clip and we’re starting consistently on or inside our own 20-yard line, eventually somebody jumps offside or somebody gets caught holding. We’ve got to turn the field position issues around. We’re playing good football teams and we like to think we’re in a fair fight, but when we’re playing on an 80-yard field and they’re playing on a 60-yard field, that can make it hard.”
What truly sank Army in its 25-11 loss to Wake Forest last week was its eight penalties, five committed by the offensive line. But when Louisiana Tech has the ball, the Black Knights will be facing an offense that, while limited in scoring so far, is nevertheless diverse in its capability. Running back Kenneth Dixon has twice run for more than 100 yards, including a season-high 129 last week against Kansas. And quarterback Ryan Higgins passed for 298 yards in his team's 13-10 loss.
“You’re talking about Higgins, and what he brings to the equation is also a pair of legs,” Ellerson said. “The biggest difference when he entered the game was their willingness to use him in the zone read. Obviously, he’s not afraid of throwing the ball, and they do spread you out. We saw that last week and three weeks ago against Ball State. We’re playing better out on the corner. We’re getting used to this. The difference will be to manage his legs, rush the passer, and don’t let him ruin your day in a single play. They’re going to throw, but we can frustrate a good quarterback. We did that for most of the day against Wake Forest.”
Most of the day. Problem was Wake Forest insisted on playing two halves, and it was in the second half that the Demon Deacons did most of the damage. Playing two halves of solid football has eluded Army since its opening-night victory over Morgan State. The Black Knights began last season with four losses before their first victory; a loss Saturday would leave them with the same 1-4 record. That was on their way to a 2-10 finish.
So, what about the season getting away with a loss?
“Nope,” Ellerson said. “Our heads are down, and we are looking at this opportunity. That’s all that matters.”