WEST POINT, N.Y. (AP) — Army coach Rich Ellerson is the odd man out right now among his service academy peers — Navy’s Ken Niumatalolo and Air Force’s Troy Calhoun already know the postseason beckons, while the Black Knights are knocking on that proverbial door.
As the football season enters its final weeks, all three service academies are in rarefied air — they all have winning records. Only twice since 1960 have all three finished a season with winning records: In 1963, Army was 7-3, Air Force 7-4, and Navy 9-2 behind Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Roger Staubach, losing to Texas in the Cotton Bowl; and in 1996, Army was 10-2, Navy 9-3, and Air Force 6-5, with the Middies beating California in the Aloha Bowl and Army falling to Auburn, 32-29, in the Independence Bowl.
That’s it. And Army hasn’t had a winning season since 1996.
“If you go back in the years they (Army) had winning football teams, they were very strong,” Calhoun said of the option-based teams of coaches Jim Young and Bob Sutton. “I’m talking specifically in 1984, 1985, 1988, 1996. All four of those Army teams were bowl teams, and they did play well against us.”
The Falcons (6-4) used three big plays — two long touchdown passes and two scoring runs by quarterback Tim Kennedy and a fumble return from midfield for another score by Jordan Waiwaiole —to beat Army 42-22 at Michie Stadium last Saturday. The victory clinched Air Force’s 17th outright Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy, emblematic of supremacy among the three service academies (Air Force beat Navy 14-6 in October), and made the Falcons bowl-eligible.
The Middies (6-3) qualified for a bowl game for the eighth straight season also on Saturday by humbling two-time defending Conference USA-champion East Carolina 76-35 behind quarterback Ricky Dobbs, who ran for a touchdown and threw for two more scores.
Navy will play in the Poinsettia Bowl against an opponent from the Mountain West Conference on Dec. 23. Air Force is a good bet to land in the Independence Bowl. Army, which doesn’t have a tie-in to any bowl game this year, could end up in the Armed Forces Bowl if eligible.
Army (5-4) has just two more chances to win its sixth game by bowl deadlines and become eligible for the postseason. The Black Knights can accomplish that lofty goal with a win Saturday at Kent State (4-5). If they don’t, they’ll have to defeat Notre Dame (4-5) on Nov. 20 at Yankee Stadium to get the necessary six wins because the Army-Navy game on Dec. 11 will be played too late to be counted toward eligible victories.
“This football team has high expectations for itself,” said Ellerson, in his second year at Army. “It doesn’t cut itself any slack. It doesn’t celebrate being close.”
Under Ellerson, Army has switched to the triple option that Air Force and Navy have used to such success, and it has begun to thrive behind sophomore quarterback Trent Steelman (nine rushing touchdowns and five passing). But the Black Knights have squandered late leads in two games — they lost 42-35 at home to Temple after leading 28-13 midway through the third quarter and blew a 17-3 lead in an overtime loss to Rutgers — and also lost 31-28 at home to Hawaii on a field goal in the final seconds.
Still, the Black Knights left a lasting impression on the field.
“Certainly, we struggled protecting their blitz schemes, but offensively they’ve made some changes to their scheme that are really going to be — already have been — very hard for people to handle,” Rutgers coach Greg Schiano said. “Going into our game they were averaging 33 points a game, and it was a really, really hard game to coach and play in defensively. They’re a very good football team.”
One with wins over Eastern Michigan, North Texas, Duke, Tulane and VMI.
“You can’t give them a short field. They’ve got the whole package,” Temple coach Al Golden said. “This guy is a great coach. This outfit’s going to be a real good team, and they’re probably going to be a bowl team this year. That’s the kind of team that they have. They look like a bowl team. They’ve got leadership, they’re tough, they’re well-coached.”
Army has not had a winning record since quarterback Ronnie McAda led that 1996 team to the school’s one-and-only 10-win season. Ellerson and the academy brass have done a masterful job of turning the program in that direction.
“They made a decision three years ago — just their whole approach — with the direction they were going to take their football program,” Calhoun said. “Not just offense — that was a small part — but the infrastructure, scheduling. You can go across the board. It had to take some guts to do it, but a credit to them to give their cadets an opportunity to have a chance to taste some success. There’s just no way you can replace that.”
Of the independents playing in the FBS, only Navy has more wins.
“We have a handful of really gifted guys on this football team, and we’ve surrounded those really gifted guys with some solid football players,” Ellerson said. “They’re taking advantage of every value-added quirk that the academy and that Army football gives them to be successful.
“They’ve embraced those things, offensively, defensively, kicking game, institutional culture. Everything we can find that’s an advantage, we’ve latched onto. These guys are leveraging all of it, and it’s making them competitive.”
In the aftermath of the loss to Air Force, the Black Knights called a senior meeting. They’re ready to take the next step.
“Last week hurt for sure, but we know what we have to do,” senior linebacker Stephen Anderson said. “We still have a very successful season ahead of us. A three-game winning streak going into a bowl game would be huge for this program and where we want to leave it for the younger guys. That’s something as seniors that we still have a very good focus on and what we’re trying to leave here.”
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.