WEST POINT – A record of 2-4 midway through the season doesn’t scream success, but everything is relative. A year ago it was 1-5, and Army’s next victory wouldn’t arrive until the Black Knights were 1-8. At that point, the season was effectively over. No one is promising a bowl game, but there’s still time to turn this team – and this season – around.
“To be 3-3 or 4-2 at this stage of the game is beyond us, and it’s not where we wanted to be,” Army coach Rich Ellerson said. “We were close in a couple of them, and we battled well, but that wasn’t us.”
Once again, everything is relative. Of Army’s four losses, the closest it’s come is 14-point defeats to Wake Forest and Stanford. Against Wake Forest the Black Knights trailed only 18-11 at the end of three quarters. Even in their 34-20 loss to Stanford, they only trailed 20-13 at halftime. The Cardinal put the game away with two touchdowns in the second half. For the season, Army has been outscored 96-84 in the first half, 63-57 in the second. Not a huge disparity. But enough.
“Now that doesn’t mean that we can’t be an awfully good football team,” Ellerson said. “They are a wonderful team that is passionate and love the game. There is something about this football team and about its prospects that we can’t lose sight of for a second. As coaches, and as players, we have to be creative and pragmatic in the practice environment to make sure we are giving ourselves every opportunity to play our best football on Saturday. We need to make some corrections and fix some things we haven’t and keep the barrel rolling. It’s not going to be easy. The trainer is playing too big of a roll at this stage of the game.”
Starting quarterback Angel Santiago will certainly be one player on the medical staff’s watch list this week when the Black Knights host Eastern Michigan. Having suffered a game-ending left ankle sprain last week against Boston College, his status for this week was iffy. He did practice today and is scheduled to start Saturday.
“We have things to work on, of course. The challenge is staying aggressive in the practice environment while we’re recovering,” Ellerson said. “We have been in some real physical, hard-fought football games, and we have to be pragmatic as we look at our week of preparation. That concerns me in continuing to improve and continuing to get better. We need to keep the same people out there a couple weeks in a row. We need to practice aggressively and fix negatives and reinforce positives. There isn’t something that every coach in the country is thinking about differently. Again we’ve had six weeks in a row where we have faced some quality opponents in some physical contests. We’ve been dragging people kicking and screaming at the end of the game, and we haven’t finished on top of the scoreboard as much as we want to, but we have a lot of football in front of us. We’re excited to play the game of the year. We’re going to play the game on the year this weekend and that is on Saturday.”
When Ellerson cites the team’s biggest problem so far, it wasn’t his customary position as being the one at fault. Nor did he overstate the team’s ever-burgeoning list of injuries.
“I’m frustrated with our special team’s play,” he said. “I’m excited at where our punter [Alex Tardieu] and kicker [Dan Grochowski] are, but we’ve had a hard time keeping our return teams on the field. That part of our game has hurt us because it shows up in field position. We’ve been playing on a longer field than our opponents and when we’re playing some pretty good opponents, we have to play on a shorter field than they do, or at least the same field that they do.”
So far, Army’s-kickoff return average is 16.47 yards per game. That ranks 121st in the NCAA. Its punt-return average of 3.5 yards is 74th. Also, what had not been a major problem until last week’s 48-27 loss to Boston College was defense. It wasn’t just the number of points, but how fast BC put them up. Army continues to excel in time of possession. But of BC’s eight scoring drives, six took 2 minutes, 32 seconds or less.
“I think we took a step back defensively against Boston College,” Ellerson said. “Certainly Boston College is a big part of that, but part of that is that we had a plan, but the plan wasn’t well enough prepared and we weren’t succinct enough. We got to the point of attack with the appropriate number of people, but we couldn’t divvy them up well enough to be effective. That’s frustrating for us, because we want to continue to improve, but that was not a great effort on defense. They had the initiative and we couldn’t take that back from them.”