WEST POINT – Humidity lay on the practice field like a heavy blanket. Labor Day indeed. But if anyone seemed to mind they were doing a good job hiding it from Rich Ellerson. That’s the difference between being 1-0 instead of 0-1.
But, as is the mantra of any coach, last week’s victory over Morgan State has already been relegated to the past tense. Enjoy it. But not for long.
“It was good to get a win, but that's ancient history for us now,” Ellerson said. “We're using the extra day for a little bit more preparation, a little more catch up. We had our traditionally Tuesday practice this morning. Guys are reasonably healthy, excited to play and are working hard."
The foundation of the Black Knights’ 28-12 victory was based just as much on what they didn’t do as to what they did, and three days after the opener, Ellerson didn’t even try to hide his pleasure that his team neither incurred a penalty nor suffered a turnover.
“The bar is very high. That was one of our major pushes in the offseason,” he said. “We have an opportunity to take a giant step forward in the mental game, and if we got that right, it would manifest itself and the ball would not be on the ground. We would have zero procedural penalties, and we would have great assignment fidelity. That's not to say no penalties, but no procedural penalties, and we were able to have no penalties. We're not surprised the ball wasn't on the ground; we practice like that routinely. We make personnel decisions based on those abilities and that kind of consistency. Are we going to turn the ball over this year? Maybe, but not often.”
One likely requirement for Army is to maintain a more consistent offense. The Black Knights scored three relatively quick touchdowns in the first half and then another on their first second-half possession. On three subsequent third-quarter possessions, they managed just one first down. In the fourth quarter, they had four first downs, three on their final, clock-killing drive. But taking time off the clock was certainly not Army’s intent as the second half started.
“Give your opponent some credit,” Ellerson said. “That had much less to do with us; we weren't trying to take the air out of the ball or anything like it. Some things that they were daring you to do, physically, we couldn't hold up. We have a little bit of an advantage in terms of numbers [of players], but they had a couple of guys in there who we had trouble handling."
Actually, no one Morgan State player proved a significant hindrance. Quarterback Robert Council completed only four of seven passes for 89 yards and one touchdown. Lamont Brown III was the leading rusher with 75 yards. The only statistic that favored Morgan State was its time of possession – 34 minutes, 28 seconds – and that’s only because of the rapidity of Army’s four touchdowns.
Among what Ellerson called “curveballs thrown at us last week” was the quick removal of starting quarterback Seth Higgins and the insertion of Council during the team’s second possession.
“[O]ur guys' ability to apply concepts and rules and unwind things and deal with a challenging style of play from their offense that we hadn't necessarily anticipated, that involved the quarterback's legs, that involved the option, which had multiple formations to include the balanced and the unbalanced eligibles,” he said. “Defensively, we weren't surprised to get an odd front, but they did an awfully good job of firing corners and running linebackers through, then they jumped into an odd front and into an even front. Every side of the ball was tested in terms of their ability to be right and apply rules and unwind things. The guys stayed on task and were very decisive. I wouldn't say they were always right, but they were decisive, and that will cover a lot of mistakes."
Once again, Army made a sinfully slim number of mistakes on both sides of the ball. Not bad for a mid-season game. For a season-opening game, it borders on divine intervention. As would any team, Army will take whatever help it can get from anywhere it originates.
Army junior free safety Geoffery Bacon and junior quarterback Angel Santiago were recognized for their play against Morgan State with the Football Bowl Subdivision Independent Defensive Player of the Week Award and a College Football Performance Award Quarterback Performer of the Week Honorable Mention, respectively.
Bacon had a career-high 16 tackles in his first career start at free safety. He led Army in tackles as a middle linebacker in 2012. Bacon made nine solo tackles en route to his 12th career double-figure tackle game. Morgan State’s 12 points were the least by an opponent since a 55-0 Army victory over Fordham two seasons ago.
Santiago made his first start since the 2011 season and responded with a career-high 120 rushing yards and a career-best three rushing touchdowns. It was his first career 100-yard game and his first career multi-touchdown game. He also threw for 101 yards and a score, completing four of eight passes. His passing yardage was also a career high, and his 18-yard scoring pass to Chevaughn Lawrence was his first career touchdown pass.