WEST POINT – One week can seem like a month. One loss can seem like a boulder. If Army is to even compete against Stanford Saturday, it had best quickly recover from its disastrous loss last week to Ball State. Easier said than done.
“We’re a frustrated outfit at the moment,” Army coach Rich Ellerson said. “We took a step back from that opener where we were playing so well and so competently with respect to the ball being off the ground, with respect to penalties and with respect to the kicking game. All of those things took a step back, and in some cases, two steps back.”
After the Black Knights’ season-opening victory over Morgan State – a game in which Army neither committed a penalty nor had a turnover – it essentially did a 180 against Ball State, being penalized eight times for 90 yards, fumbling twice and suffering one interception. It all added up to a 40-14 loss.
‘I’m not going to attempt to psychoanalyze my football team, but I think that we get it,” Ellerson said. “We failed to bring those things from the practice environment into the game with us. All I know is that you have to do it right. You have to do it with a tempo. You have to do it all week long. Again, we’ve been doing it that way for months and we haven’t had a ball on the ground in the mesh for weeks, literally weeks. That just makes us crazy. We work on not hitting people out of bounds and not hitting players in the back more than any team in America. We make sure our guys experience that decision every day. We originally eliminated those plays from our docket and then just to have it come out of nowhere is frustrating. Like I’ve said, you have to purge that experience and put it out because guess what, there is a great football team coming into town. It gives ourselves a chance to play a game that we love to play so we have to prepare well, be determined, stay in the moment and be the team that we have been practicing being since March.”
Problem is precise practices don’t always transfer to game days. Particularly when the opposition is the No. 5-ranked team in the nation.
“So as we get ready for Stanford, that loss is going to want to steal the conversation, but it can’t,” he said. “We have to keep our eyes on the goal. We have to be the poised and confident football team so we can find out how we match up. The truth is when you have the ball on the ground that much, you’re penalized that much, and fail to do some of those things that we need to do in the kicking game, the score reflects those things opposed to the match-up. I am not saying that we are a better football team than Ball State, but I’d like to find out how we match up with Ball State. The truth is you can’t see through the lack of core competencies to get to that. We are still a good football team that plays hard, but we took a step back in that core area that we were talking about growth. We were not a mentally tough, poised and competent football team.”
Of course, competency is sometimes related to the team you’re playing, and Ball State, a 9-4 team last year, has won its first two games, both routs. If there are any cobwebs remaining from the Black Knights’ trip to Muncie, Indiana, best to shake them. Fast.
“The good news is we have a game this week,” Ellerson said. “We have a week to prepare. We have a week to practice, and we have to find those things in the practice environment that will help us fix what needs to be fixed. We’ve continued to work hard and practice hard, and we have to make sure those things that we are doing in the practice environment carries over into the game.”
Again, easier said than done.
“My goal for the football team is going to be to lean forward and come out of your shoes at these guys,” Ellerson said. “One of the things that helped us in our opener is that [Morgan State] came out flat footed with their offense and defense and we played with decisiveness and aggression. We took a step back in that regard. If anything comes out of this contest it is that we have to be coming out of our shoes. We have to have our eyes right, leaning forward and come out on the assault. Then let’s see how we match up. We don’t match up well on paper, but we have these unique systems that give us a little bit of an opportunity. We were talking earlier about how we don’t know some things like how they punt the ball. They haven’t punted the ball yet so we don’t know. There is a good reason why they haven’t. We have our challenges.”
If the Black Knights have any reason for optimism – at least offensively – it’s the resurrection after one lost game of halfback Raymond Maples, who, after rushing for just 18 yards against Morgan State had a more representative turnout of 84 yards against Ball State. The 113 yards gained by fullback Larry Dixon helped move Army up the rushing-leadings ladder. After leading the nation in rushing the last two seasons, the Black Knights are currently 10th, with a two-game average of 329 yards.
In its opener last week against San Jose State, the Cardinal had a rather ho-hum 34-13 victory, and, yes, Stanford punter Ben Rhyne had the day off. Stanford begins its league schedule next week against Arizona State, but it’s unlikely it will be looking ahead. Teams don’t maintain their national rankings by taking a week off. And teams that are coming off a 2-10 season can’t just hope they’re perceived by the opposition as little more than a speed bump in their schedule.
“We didn’t get hit with a bucket of cold water, we got hit with a bucket,” Ellerson said. “We need to wake up and play the next play. We need to stop worrying about what people think, or what people are saying, or how important this game is. The most important game of the week is this week. The most important game of the year is this one, because it’s the only one we play all week. That was true last week, it was true two weeks ago and it’s true this week. When we get to that game, the most important thing we’ll do is snap the next ball, and that’s it. That’s all there is to it. That makes for a short article. That doesn’t work in the blogosphere, but that’s all there is to it.”