WEST POINT – One of Yogi Berra’s expressions of sage wisdom, obviously referenced to baseball, could also be applied to the direction of Army’s football season.
“It gets late early out there.”
Four games into the season, the team having lost three straight, it’s not quite midnight, but the sun may be beginning to set. Having lost its top running back, Raymond Maples, most likely for the season, and neither of its top two quarterbacks having done enough to lock down the position – and with the Blacks Knights’ next two games on the road -- well, tick tock.
“It’s not complicated,” Army head coach Rich Ellerson said. “We have it written all over the wall. The things that correlate with success on the football field don’t change, but they have to experience that and recognize that the scoreboard is lying to you regardless of what it’s saying. All that matters is the next snap and all that matters is the next opportunity. Those things that we put on the wall on the next snap, in the next game, are all that stands between you and success at the end of the day. It’s not a mystery at all when you slow it down. Basically, there is a feeling missing and there is an experience missing. There is no substitute for habit. Winning is a habit, and we’re battling like crazy to make that happen.”
And while losing may not become a habit, it could evolve into an expectation. After its opening-night victory, Army has endured three decisive losses, two of them at home. This week’s date with Louisiana Tech will be played upon what is essentially a neutral site for both teams. Rather than playing at Louisiana Tech’s Joe Aillet Stadium, the game will be played at the Cotton Bowl in the inaugural Heart of Dallas Classic. Perhaps Ellerson doesn’t believe in that fib-hungry scoreboard, but until further notice it remains the final arbiter. That is, however, in contrast to the Black Knights’ Saturday loss to Wake Forest, at which penalty flags pretty much dictated the course of the game and its outcome.
Five of Army’s eight penalties were false starts on the offensive end, throwing a wrench into any form of ball-moving consistency. Perhaps part of the problem can be traced to the relative lack of size on its offensive line. The average weight of the Black Knights’ five starting linemen is 254 pounds; the biggest is 265-pound right tackle Justin Gilbert. In contrast, all but one of Wake Forest’s offensive linemen exceed 300 pounds. Center Cory Helms is a mere 290. As line play is measured in split seconds may Army now become just a touch hesitant at the snap to avoid such penalties?
“If we do that, then we have no chance,” Ellerson said. “We play fast. When you look at our offensive line and other teams’ offensive lines coming off the ball, it’s night and day. It has to be that way because we can’t win a pie-eating contest with these folks. We have to cut and to be athletic, and to do that we have to have the weight on our hands and be able to move in the blink of an eye.”
Of course, keeping the ball moving has been more difficult since the loss of Maples early in Army’s loss to Stanford two weeks ago; fullback Larry Dixon was also injured in that game with an ankle injury. He, too, missed the Wake Forest game, but Ellerson expects him to be back this week. And as if all that wasn’t enough quarterback A.J. Schurr also suffered an ankle injury Saturday. Through the first four games Schurr and Angel Santiago have shared quarterback duties. If Santiago is No. 1 Schurr has been 1A. Another quarterback became part of the mix against Wake Forest when Kelvin White entered the game late in the fourth quarter, completing 4 of 5 passes for 45 yards. The game ended as White had driven the team to the Wake Forest 2-yard line. Yes, Ellerson was impressed.
“A.J. isn’t going to be available for a lot of reps during the week, at least that’s what we anticipate, but there are some reps to be had and Kelvin will take advantage of that,” he said. “He can really throw the ball. He’s growing as an option quarterback, but that part of the game doesn’t come quite as easily to him. He’s a different quarterback than the other guys. A.J. and Angel are very similar in terms of their profiles. They both play the game with the same positive attributes. Kelvin’s a little bit different. He’s a good runner. He doesn’t have lightning-quick feet, but he can see and he can sling it.”
Whether the ball is to be run or slung, the Black Knights had best get to it. Despite finishing 2-10 last season, it was their offense that carried them. The loss of Maples to injury and record-setting quarterback Trent Steelman to graduation has left them, seemingly, playing with one hand tied behind their backs. Further, in its four games, opponents are averaging just under 32 points per game; Army has scored just over 18 points per game. A team can choose to score more points or give up less points in order to win. Either way isn’t easy.
“What makes it hard to win are those things that we talk about all the time,” Ellerson said. “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 the challenges on defense. These guys certainly know it’s hard to win a football game, but they are willing to do just that.”
Ellerson said Maples’ groin injury will keep him out anywhere from six to 12 weeks. The hope is to have him back by Dec. 14 against Navy.
“That’s a possibility, but it’s going to be a while before we know that,” he said.