Larry Dixon (Danny Wild-US PRESSWIRE)
There's only one thing left for Rich Ellerson to achieve at Army – technically two things, but they're bundled in one game. You know what that game is. Such a statement might seem odd in the midst of a 2-7 season, but it's entirely true now that Ellerson has crossed an important item off his West Point bucket list.
Bowl game? Check.
Bowl win? Check.
Winning season? Check.
Rich Ellerson has certainly accomplished a number of important goals since he came to West Point to take over the reeling program Stan Brock left behind at the end of the 2008 season. The road hasn't been an easy one, a fact affirmed by the 1-7 season the 2012 Army team had endured through September and October. However, there can be no argument that the Black Knights are better than they were four years ago, an Election Day college football testament to Ellerson's overall body of work.
Yet, for everything he had achieved on the job, Ellerson knew that an empty space existed on his resume. No victories over Air Force had been attained in his first three seasons at Army. Moreover, not a single win in a Commander-In-Chief's Trophy game had been secured. This absence of a signature scalp matters at Army, just as it would matter at the other two service academies in the Football Bowl Subdivision. The Brave Old Army Team's failures against Air Force and Navy had become not just prevalent, but pronounced; not just exasperating, but enduring; not straightforward, but as severe as a stomach punch.
Indeed, one of the details of Ellerson's tenure at Army that has eaten away at the program and its fan base is that Army has become good enough to compete with Air Force and Navy on relatively even terms… only to fall short in heartbreaking fashion. Ellerson has made this program better… which has often served to make losses to Air Force and Navy that much harder to take. Army has knocked, knocked, knocked on Navy's door in two of the past three years, and last year against Air Force, it seemed as though the Black Knights were going to break through in a CIC Trophy game. This formed the backdrop for Saturday's renewal of the series between Army and the Falcons from Colorado Springs.
It would be a lie to claim that Army – players, coaches, trainers, everyone in the program's inner circles – had blotted out the memory of last year's game in the Rocky Mountains. Army led, 14-0, and was plainly cheated out of a 21-0 lead by a poor refereeing decision, followed by the replay booth's failure to overturn the bad call. Max Jenkins had scored from the 1-yard line. His waist reached the goal line, with his hands holding the ball well beyond the line. Television cameras couldn't see the ball, but an obvious progression of logic could have filled in the blanks, arriving at the deduction that the ball was not only at the goal line, but a few feet beyond it.
Army still owned a two-touchdown lead, but after that horrible call, a seed was planted in the minds of the Black Knights, a seed containing the toxin that has spoiled their CIC games under Ellerson and previous head coaches: doubt. Army made another foray to the Air Force 1, only to fumble. The Black Knights led by a 14-0 score at halftime, but the Falcons had to think that victory was well within their reach. Sure enough, Air Force soared in the second half, aided by some timely mistakes from Army, especially a brilliant fake punt that was about to get a first down… until the Black Knights fumbled the ball, thereby botching the play. Air Force won, 24-14, and the memory of that loss had to linger in the hearts and minds of Army fans over the past 12 months.
That experience in 2011 could have caused Army to lose heart and buckle in 2012, but the Black Knights took the other and far more impressive course of action: They redoubled their efforts. They gained another double-digit halftime lead (20-7), but didn't allow themselves to become complacent. They slapped a 15-0 third quarter on the Falcons to establish a 35-7 stranglehold on the proceedings. They never made that big fumble on the AFA 1, instead producing the clean sheet in the turnover column, the very goal that has proven to be so elusive in CIC games over the past three seasons.
The talent and ability to beat Air Force existed on Army's sideline last season, but the discipline and concentration needed to do the deed were still missing. In 2012, Ellerson instilled those extra ingredients into his charges, getting the Black Knights to ignore their 1-7 mark and their six-game losing streak against the Falcons. There was no letdown. There was no disastrous mistake that undid a full first half of good work. The relentlessness and in-game consistency that had never graced a CIC game from Army's perspective finally emerged… not out of thin air, but from that place deep within the bones and marrow of every Army player. Trent Steelman, in his senior season, captured a scalp that he'll treasure for the rest of his life.
You'll notice, of course, the use of the article "a," and not "the." A scalp is Air Force. THE scalp still to be claimed is the one against Navy. Should Steelman win that contest on Dec. 8, Army will not only snap the most tormenting losing streak in the history of the program; it will win the Commander-In-Chief's Trophy for the first time since 1996.
And then there was one – one game left to win for Rich Ellerson, a game that – if claimed – will achieve a double-goal and make this bowl-free 2012 season an improbable yet substantial success.