WEST POINT –The obligatory pre-game locker-room histrionics rarely include an hour-long rain delay, but that’s what Rich Ellerson faced as he led his team off the field moments before Army’s game against Louisiana Tech was to begin Saturday. Mental and physical preparation and the accompanying booster shots of adrenalin now had to be put on hold. What’s a coach to do?
“If you had been in the locker room, you would have said, ‘These guys are ready,’ ” Ellerson said. “As a coach, I feel like I have to go in there and make some of that stuff happen, but frankly, I got in there and started listening and observing and just stepped back and let it happen. My biggest concern was not using too much energy in the locker room waiting to go out there and play. I wanted to make sure we were excited, but we didn’t need to get any reps in while we were in the locker room. We needed to stay flexible and be ready to go.”
The Black Knights maintained that readiness and it helped translate into a 35-16 victory, a game in which Army started well and finished strongly. Having entered the game carrying a three-game losing streak and the threat of the season getting away with just a third of the schedule completed, Army had been put in the position of doing or getting close to dying. The patient is alive and well, thank you.
“Well, winning is a lot of fun,” Ellerson said. “It validates an awful lot of things that we have been working on. We have the mantra, the harder it gets the harder we play, and it was hard. The conditions were hard, the injuries have made it hard and we had guys that were lost in that game. Other guys have had to come in and step it up. Guys stepped up and made a lot of plays, and that is gratifying on a lot of levels. We have a wonderful football team.”
A team that, in addition to the pre-game delay, was faced with another 45 minutes off the field when the monsoon returned to the Cotton Bowl near the end of the first quarter. By then, Army led 7-0 and was deep in Tech territory. Momentum and rain delays rarely mix well.
“You’re in there cooling your heels, waiting for a play to resume and I had a chance to look around in the locker room,” he said. “You can see how the guys relate to one another and how they feel about their football team and about the game. They look forward to the game. I said to the coaches, ‘This is a team that we all want to be a part of.’ Internally, it’s a cohesive group of guys who just love to play the game and care about each other. It was great to see them get the win and have all of their hard work validated.”
The Black Knights not only scored another touchdown soon after the resumption of play, but on two of their next three possessions. Rarely this season have they managed such offensive continuity, particularly with the number of injuries incurred in the backfield. But after two straight so-so games on the ground (296 yards against Stanford, 271 against Wake Forest) Army busted out for 414 yards against Tech. That performance moved its national ranking in rushing per game from 10th to second, with 325.4 yards per game. Oregon is No. 1 with 332.5 yards per game. Terry Baggett, taking the place of the injured Raymond Maples, ran for a career-high 143 yards.
“Terry doesn’t surprise us, every time we’ve seen him touch the ball, he’s been productive,” Ellerson said. “Where I think he’s grown the most this year is as a blocker. He’s become very effective on the front side, which is important because we’re trying to be balanced. All of our backs have to be able to touch the ball and they all have to be efficient with the ball, but they all have to block.”
One thing Army does have going for it this season is a veteran presence. Fourteen players – seven each on offense and defense – were returning starters.
“Our maturity,” Ellerson said, “was one of the reasons we were optimistic going into this season. We’re a more mature football team. We’re physically more mature. That’s especially important at a service academy where the freshman and sophomore years are especially challenging. The physical maturity, the emotional maturity, and of course the number of opportunities they’ve had to play all play a role. Some of the juniors have played an awful lot of football for being just juniors. Many of those guys were starting and playing significant roles as freshmen, so that bodes well for us. The flipside of that is we have to stay healthy. We have too many guys with too much experience that aren’t available week in and week out. The good news is we’re healing. We’ve done some things internally about that physical maturity. I mentioned earlier that’s giving us a chance to bounce back from some of those nicks that frankly, in years past, I’m not sure we would have bounced back from.”
Army freshman cornerback Josh Jenkins was ejected with 7 minutes, 7 seconds left in the third quarter under the NCAA’s new penalty against targeting defenseless players. After a pass was tipped by safety Hayden Pierce, Jenkins appeared to hit Louisiana Tech wide receiver Andrew Guillot shoulder to shoulder.
According to rule 9-1-4: “No player shall target and initiate contact to the head or neck area of a defenseless opponent with the helmet, forearm, fist, elbow or shoulder. When in question, it is a foul.”
The play was reviewed and the call was upheld. As such, Jenkins must sit out the first half of Army’s game against Boston College Saturday.
“We’re going to attack the football, we’re not going to assault the man,” Ellerson said. “If in the course of attacking the football, we find ourselves in a position where the official judges us to be on the wrong side of the fence, we’ll take it. College football said we are not going to do that. We are not going to target defenseless players above the shoulder. We as coaches have absolutely embraced that. I’m not sure that Josh is innocent of that intent. He was not doing what we asked him to do, and that’s attacking the football. You can say it was shoulder to shoulder, but that’s a court of higher opinion. Over the course of the season, there are going to be some calls that you don’t like or you disagree with, but we’re not going to target defenseless players above the shoulder. We’re not going to tolerate it and we’re not going to excuse it. I don’t think it was especially dangerous or vicious, but it had the potential and the officials judged it that way.”
Army still has the option of appealing the suspension. Ellerson has not decided if he plans to do so.