Army foot­ball team strings to­gether suc­cess

USA TODAY US Edition - - SPORTS - Paul Myer­berg

Army play­ers trudg­ing off Owen Field fol­low­ing an over­time loss to Ok­la­homa on Sept. 23 were ser­e­naded with cheers from the Soon­ers’ fan base, which rec­og­nized the ef­forts of an un­der­sized ser­vice academy against a team that would go on to win the Big 12 Con­fer­ence cham­pi­onship and reach the Col­lege Foot­ball Play­off.

The same re­sponse echoed across col­lege foot­ball: Army was cel­e­brated for its per­for­mance even in de­feat, as a sig­nif­i­cant un­der­dog run­ning neckand-neck against a na­tional power with a blue­print unique across the Bowl Sub­di­vi­sion — an op­tion-driven scheme pred­i­cated on ball con­trol and time of pos­ses­sion at a time when spread and tempo con­cepts have trick­led into every ma­jor con­fer­ence.

Army didn’t share the same sen­ti­ment. De­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Jay Bate­man thinks about the Ok­la­homa loss every morn­ing, “about my first call in over­time and how bad it was,” he said.

“We didn’t play that well, to be hon­est,” said se­nior de­fen­sive back James Gib­son. “I mean, they’re a good team, don’t get me wrong. But we made mis­takes and they cap­i­tal­ized on them. That’s what ul­ti­mately lost us the game.”

The Black Knights are still up­set, said head coach Jeff Monken.

“We had a chance to win the game. What’s un­for­tu­nate is we did some things that we could have con­trolled in terms of the ex­e­cu­tion of our as­sign­ment and fun­da­men­tals that could’ve changed the game.”

It’s easy to mark the pro­gram’s progress by the stand­ings: Army is 27-10 in the past three sea­sons and 9-2 this fall, ranked 25th in the Amway Coaches Poll, head­ing into Satur­day’s ri­valry matchup with Navy. In terms of wins, this is the pro­gram’s most suc­cess­ful stretch since just af­ter World War II, the fi­nal years of Army’s turn as an an­nual con­tender for the na­tional cham­pi­onship.

But the most im­me­di­ate ex­am­ple of how far this pro­gram has come can be found in its re­sponse to this year’s loss to Ok­la­homa. The Knights weren’t happy for giv­ing the Soon­ers a game; they were up­set, ticked off, an­gry for los­ing in over­time to a team set to bat­tle topranked Alabama in the Orange Bowl. The days of Army ac­cept­ing a moral vic­tory are over. The Knights now ex­pect to win every Satur­day.

“I think we’re all kind of tired of be­ing pat­ted on the head,” said ath­let­ics di­rec­tor Boo Cor­ri­gan.

It’s a de­vel­op­ment rooted in Monken’s first two sea­sons, in 2014 and 2015, when Army won just six games against eight losses by fewer than seven points. Af­ter that 2015 sea­son, play­ers wore shirts bear­ing the phrase “seven stops” to rec­og­nize the slim dif­fer­ence be­tween a los­ing sea­son and one end­ing in bowl el­i­gi­bil­ity.

“We were in the learn-how-to-com- pete phase,” said of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Brent Davis. “As frus­trat­ing as it was, peo­ple out­side the pro­gram prob­a­bly didn’t see the turn. Prob­a­bly only the peo­ple in­side the build­ing un­der­stood what was go­ing on.”

Be­hind a vastly im­proved de­fense — Bate­man was a fi­nal­ist this fall for the Broyles Award as the na­tion’s top as­sis­tant coach — and an of­fen­sive style based on con­trol­ling the line of scrim­mage, Army has steadily de­vel­oped into one of the most suc­cess­ful pro­grams across the Group of Five. With a win against Navy or against Hous­ton in the Armed Forces Bowl, the Knights would join Cen­tral Flor­ida, Boise State and Fresno State as the only teams from a non-ma­jor con­fer­ence with dou­ble-digit wins in each of the past two sea­sons.

The op­tion at­tack has be­come Army’s call­ing card and the pro­gram’s great­est as­set. Op­po­nents get­ting ready for the un­ortho­dox style typ­i­cally have less than a week to pre­pare for the sys­tem, and “it’s tough to get those guys to read the op­tion in three or four days.” Ear­lier this decade, the spread may have caught de­fenses flat­footed or off-bal­ance; now, it’s the Army op­tion that catches teams by sur­prise.

“I mean, you can say what­ever you want,” se­nior cen­ter Bryce Hol­land said. “You can have fun say­ing, ‘Well, the spread is where it’s at,’ but if you put guys in the box and can’t stop us, I don’t know what you’re go­ing to do.”

The scheme has come to em­body the ethos of the pro­gram. On a team board in­side its foot­ball fa­cil­ity are slo­gans, one that reads: Make our op­po­nent quit.

“That’s what we try to do every game,” Gib­son said. “Win­ning is not enough. At the end of the day, you want to win, but it’s the way you win. You want to win be­cause you dom­i­nated your op­po­nent. Mak­ing your op­po­nent quit is the ul­ti­mate sat­is­fac­tion in a game.”

This mind­set has lifted Army into an elite level among the Group of Five, plac­ing Monken into con­tention for na­tional coach of the year and con­sis­tently rais­ing ex­pec­ta­tions for a pro­gram that hadn’t reached sim­i­lar heights in decades. It has al­tered the Knights’ tra­jec­tory, set­ting up a sce­nario where next year’s team might be­gin on the out­skirts of the Top 25 and bat­tle for the New Year’s Six bowl bid given to the best team out­side the Power Five.

And it has led to a fun­da­men­tal shift in how Army views its own po­ten­tial. There’s no greater marker of Army’s progress than the team’s be­lief that every game — in­clud­ing those against Ok­la­homa or an­other team from the Power Five leagues — is not only a game the Knights could win but should.

“We know we’re sup­posed to win the game,” Monken said, “and it’s not a sur­prise to any­body. It doesn’t mat­ter who we play. It could be the Green Bay Pack­ers. If we don’t win, we’re go­ing to be dis­ap­pointed be­cause we be­lieve that if we play the best we can play we’re sup­posed to win.”

DANNY WILD/USA TO­DAY SPORTS

The Army Black Knights take the field every Satur­day ex­pect­ing to win thanks to a 27-10 record the past three sea­sons.

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