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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

The Countdown

No. 88 : Army

As an Independent, Army has the ability to dictate its own schedule. To a degree: Army still needs to play Navy in December; the Cadets still need to fit Air Force into the schedule around the Falcons’ Mountain West slate; and Army would do what it took to get Notre Dame on the schedule, because Notre Dame is, well, Notre Dame. And as an institution, Army has the financial security to play anyone, anytime, anywhere – the Cadets were doing so long before Fresno State coined the phrase. Think about these two facts, that Army can dictate its own schedule and can largely pick and choose its opponents, and then consider this: the Cadets’ 2012 schedule has them playing 11 games over 11 weeks. Army could have played a game on Sept. 1 and then taken a week off. Had at least two games between Temple on Nov. 17 and Navy on Dec. 8. Instead: 11 games, 11 weeks. This won’t be easy.


West Point, N.Y.

Black Knights

Returning starters
14 (6 offense, 8 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 77

2011 record
(3-9, 0-0)

Last year’s

No. 102

2012 schedule

  • Sept. 8
    at San Diego St.
  • Sept. 15
    Northern Illinois
  • Sept. 22
    at Wake Forest
  • Sept. 29
    Stony Brook
  • Oct. 6
    Boston College
  • Oct. 13
    Kent St.
  • Oct. 20
    at Eastern Mich.
  • Oct. 27
    Ball St.
  • Nov. 3
    Air Force
  • Nov. 10
    at Rutgers
  • Nov. 17
  • Dec. 8
    Navy (in Philadelphia)

Last year’s prediction

The days of 3-9 are long, long gone. But it’s going to be very difficult to get back to six wins. It starts with the schedule, which has some winnable games, as noted – Ball State, Tulane, Miami (Ohio) and Fordham – but is far more difficult than it was a year ago. And try as I might, I can’t overlook the holes along the offensive and defensive line. Army’s not going to take a significant step back, but it looks the Cadets will lose an extra game or two. Still, if last year taught us anything, it’s that the Ellerson-led Cadets can and will exceed expectations.

2011 recap

In a nutshell The days of 3-9 made a painful return to West Point, as the Cadets slipped down to three wins after reaching bowl play in Rich Ellerson’s second year with the program. Included in those nine losses were another pair to Air Force and Navy, dropping Ellerson to 0-4 in Army’s key rivalry games. One of the factors behind Army’s decline was this beefed-up schedule, one that started with a bang, lessened in early October and went to another level over the second half. The Cadets closed with five losses in six games, with four of the five setbacks coming against eventual bowl teams and the fifth coming against the Midshipmen. Another issue? An inability to win close games. The Cadets lost four games by 10 points or less, primarily as a result of a sputtering offensive attack. After averaging 26.6 points per game in 2010, a program-high since 1996, the Cadets averaged 24.8 points per game last fall. Not a tremendous slide, but the offense was supposed to move forward, not backward, in Ellerson’s third season.

High point A 21-14 win over Northwestern on Sept. 17. After a tough, three-point loss to San Diego State a week earlier, this victory over a B.C.S. conference opponent steadied Army’s ship – and I probably shouldn’t use nautical references in an Army preview. A win over Tulane two weeks later pushed Army to 2-3, after which point the Cadets would drop six of seven.

Low point Two more losses to Air Force and Navy. Army was in each game, if that means anything. Despite injuries, the Cadets took a 14-0 lead over the Falcons heading into the locker room at halftime before collapsing, allowing 21 third quarter points in a 24-14 loss. And the Navy game? Tied at 21-21 entering the final 15 minutes, the Midshipmen tacked on a pair of field goals over the first five minutes of the fourth quarter and held on for a 27-21 win.

Tidbit Army led the nation in rushing (346.5 yards per game) and carries (61.7 per game) last fall. The Cadets were the first service academy to lead the F.B.S. in rushing since Navy did so in 2008; Nevada led the way in 2009 and Georgia Tech in 2010. Army’s rushing yards per game was also the highest end-of-season total in the F.B.S. since Navy averaged 348.8 yards per game back in 2007. The 34.1-yard gap between Army’s total and second-place Georgia Tech was the third-highest over the last five years, trailing the gap of 49.5 yards between Nevada and Georgia Tech in 2009 and the 49.3 yards between Navy and Air Force in 2007.

Tidbit (offensive issues edition) So Army ran the ball better than any team in college football yet fared to match 2010’s scoring output. Why? Here are two reasons: terrible ball control and a failure to convert in the red zone. Army finished 86th nationally in turnovers, committing 26, and tied for 108th nationally in turnover margin at minus-nine. The Cadets also tied for 84th nationally in red zone conversion, turning such opportunities into points only 77.8 percent of the time. With the way Army runs the football, pounding into the end zone shouldn’t be so difficult.

Tidbit (Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy edition) Army has not won the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy since 1996; that’s the same year as the program’s last double-digit season, and the only double-digit win season in its history – though Red Blaik’s teams would have won 100 games, if given the opportunity. Since 1997, Army has lost both games in the Commander-in-Chief’s series 12 times: 1997, 1999-2000, 2002-4 and 2006-11. Yes, the Cadets have failed to beat either the Falcons or Midshipmen in 13 tries, dating back to a 27-24 win over Air Force on Nov. 5, 2005.

Former players in the N.F.L.

2 LB Caleb Campbell (Kansas City), RB Collin Mooney (Tennessee).

Arbitrary top five list

Athletic sons of members of the Army
1. Tiger Woods.
2. Shaquille O’Neal.
3. Johnny Damon.
4. Priest Holmes.
5. Davey Johnson.


Rich Ellerson (Hawaii ’77), 15-22 after three seasons at Army. Ellerson was hired in an effort to level the playing field with Navy, and after two years, Army’s decision was undoubtedly the right one. Do you feel the same after three years? Last season’s decline was troubling, but the Cadets remain in a far better place today, with Ellerson at the helm, than at any point over the last decade. Ellerson led Army back to bowl play in 2010, snapping a 13-year skid without a winning record, and from the start Army has been far more competitive – despite some early growing pains on offense – than it had been under Stan Brock, who compiled a 6-18 record at Army from 2007-8. Army had decided early after firing Brock that their next head coach must be well-versed in the ways of the option, a decision that led them to investigate both of Navy’s coordinators before landing Ellerson, then the head coach at Cal Poly. The 2008 Mustangs led the F.C.S. in points (44.4) and yards (486.5) per game and finished third in rushing (306.5 yards per game), numbers that illustrated his grasp of the option. Overall, Ellerson posted a 56-34 record over eight seasons with the Mustangs, winning at least seven games each of the last six seasons. Cal Poly had only one winning season in the six seasons prior to Ellerson’s arrival in 2001, perhaps indicating his ability to build a winning program from the bottom up. Such an ability has come in handy at Army. The program’s decision to go forward with a run-based offense was an inspired move, even if one wholly motivated by Navy’s recent success, and Ellerson is still the right coach to lead this team in a new direction. The job he did over his first two years was magnificent, significantly closing the gap between Army and its rivals Navy and Air Force. I said last summer that Army should feel blessed it had the foresight to hire such a quality coach at such a crucial juncture in the program’s history. A step back last fall doesn’t necessarily change that – but it does put Ellerson in a place where he must prove that Army’s bowl trip wasn’t a fluke.

Players to watch

Army has enough returning experience in the backfield to lift it back into bowl play after a one-year absence. At the same time, injuries to some key figures in the backfield, if not addressed before September, could lead the Cadets through another painful, seven-plus-loss season. Stay on the side of optimism: If all goes according to plan – if the 10 players who missed time during the spring return to full health – Army has more than enough weapons to move the ball against every team on this schedule.

The most looming injury concern revolves around senior quarterback Trent Steelman, who missed all or parts of five games last fall with various lower-body ailments. First it was the ankle last October; then it was the knee in November; lastly, Steelman needed arthroscopic knee surgery just days prior to Army’s spring game. While the coaching staff believes that Steelman will be back at or near 100 percent for fall camp, Army desperately needs a healthy Steelman to run this offense from under center. Despite missing time last fall, he still finished second on the team in rushing (645 yards) while leading the way with 12 scores.

Above all else, you can’t put a price tag on his sort of leadership and experience. When in the lineup, Steelman takes full control of this offense; he knows it forward and backward, up and down, left and right. Steelman started 32 games to start his career before being injured in October, and brings 34 career starts altogether into his final season. In Steelman, Army has what Navy and Air Force do not: a seasoned starter at quarterback. You can’t put a price tag on that. But he needs to be in the lineup for 12 games – or 13, hopefully – as a senior. Ellerson and his staff like his backup, sophomore Angel Santiago, but the offense runs on a higher level with Steelman under center.

The offense also needs steady play at fullback, something Army hopes it will get out of sophomore Larry Dixon (542 yards, 5 scores). Dixon’s potential can be summed up in one fact: he’s good enough – promising enough as a full-time starter – to push senior Jared Hassin out of the position altogether. Dixon came on strong last fall, averaging 69.8 yards per game over the second half, and should challenge for 1,000 yards as the starter.

The backfield as a whole is loaded. There’s Hassin, a 1,000-yard back as a sophomore. Senior Malcolm Brown (572 yards), who also serves as Army’s most dangerous receiving weapon (7 catches for 163 yards). Junior fullback Hayden Tippett, who should see more touches with Hassin’s permanent move out of the position. Sophomores Trenton Turrentine, Terry Baggett and Stephen Fraser – the latter a big-play threat who may be too dangerous to keep off the field.

Most of all, there’s junior Raymond Maples (1,066 yards), who is fresh off one of the finest seasons by a running back in program history. He averaged 7.3 yards per carry, the highest average by an Army back with at least 100 carries in the history of the program – you know, a history that includes Mr. Inside and Mr. Outside. Maples’ breakout season was unexpected not only because he had 49 touches as a freshman but also because it signaled a bit of a change for this offense as a whole; the star back over Ellerson’s first two seasons was the fullback, while Maples carried the load out of Army’s C-Back position. If the Cadets can balance out of Maples with strong play out of the fullback spot, this offense – this option-flexbone-shifting-veer-zone-counter offense – could take a huge step forward.

Army’s going to throw the ball about 11 times per game. In a perfect world, the Cadets would attempt zero passing attempts per game. But they’ll pass every once in a while, sometimes on third down when needed, other times just to keep defenses honest. The Cadets lose both of last year’s starters, but no worries: it doesn’t matter. Army’s receivers won’t get open because they’re fast, or because they can be covered, or even because they run great routes; they’ll be open because a secondary moves all the way to stop the run and gets burned deep. Junior Patrick Laird and sophomore Chevaughn Lawrence are the likely starters, with juniors E.J. Tucker and Anthony Stephens in reserve. One or two will catch a 75-yard touchdown pass in 2012.

If you’re looking for a reason why Army won’t make another rapid jump back into bowl play, feast your eyes on a defensive line with concerns to burn. This front will struggle getting to the quarterback. Has enormous holes along the interior. Lacks size. Won’t be able to stand up against the run – and there are teams on Army’s schedule already looking forward to unleashing a steady diet of the running game. It’s a major issue, especially along the interior.

But one of the beauties of Ellerson’s defense – and he is a defense-first coach – is in how it doesn’t win with size but with speed and flexibility. A very brief primer on this defense: it plays with eight men in the box, with one deep safety; it puts a lineman over the center; and it effectively runs on four levels, with down linemen, hybrid end-linebackers, true linebackers and a secondary. It can be confusing, which helps the Cadets fend off more physically gifted opponents, and it’s built to take on an option offense, which comes in handy against Air Force and Navy.

Back to this defensive line. The interior is vastly inexperienced and extremely undersized. The top five tackles have participated in a combined four games; the biggest, sophomore Mike Ugenyi, weighs 257 pounds, while the two starters weigh a combined 486 pounds – or one typical B.C.S. conference tackle, after a big lunch, along with his girlfriend. Those two starters are junior Robert Kough, who Ellerson really likes, and sophomore Richard Glover. They’ll be backed up Ugenyi – who might remain a year away from being a factor – Joe Drummond and Shane Finnane.

The situation is better along the outside. Junior Holtz Zalneraitis (25 tackles) moves outside to defensive end after being forced to take snaps at tackle a year ago. He’s joined at Army’s hybrid linebacker-end spot by the combination of seniors Zach Watts (26 tackles, 6.5 for loss) and Jarett Mackey, with Watts’ serving as Army’s most proven and productive lineman. He, along with Zalneraitis, will be tasked with getting more pressure in the backfield – something Army’s defensive front achieved rarely a year ago.

As a whole, the defensive line is a major issue. I spoke about how this defense’s flexibility and uniqueness can make it a handful for the opposition; nevertheless, Army should be very worried about how this thin group – both in terms of deep and size – will stand up to the streak of 11 games over 11 weeks to open the season. Can the line stand up to the likes of Northern Illinois, San Diego State, Eastern Michigan and Air Force without a breather?

Army’s linebackers provide the backbone of this defense. Already experienced, Ellerson added another talent into the mix when he shifted senior Thomas Holloway (76 tackles) down from free safety. Holloway will help Army offset the loss of leading tackler Steven Erzinger. For now, however, he’s running second at rover behind junior Justin Trimble; I don’t expect that to last until September, and if it does, Army should consider moving Holloway back to safety as to get him onto the field in some capacity.

The Cadets return sophomore Geoffrey Bacon (60 tackles, 2.5 for loss) in the middle, where he started five of Army’s last six games in 2011. He’ll be flanked by either Holloway or Trimble on one side and senior Nate Combs (37 tackles, 3.0 sacks) on the other. The Cadets have great depth at linebacker: In addition to the loser of the Holloway-Trimble battle, the Cadets can use junior Corey Watts and sophomore Jacob Drodz.

What’s the story in the secondary? Begin with the movement at free safety. Holloway is moving down to linebacker. Tyler Dickson (60 tackles), is moving over to cornerback, where he’s battling senior Waverly Washington for the starting role. That opens up the free safety spot to one of two seniors, Ty Shrader and Kyler Martin; while Shrader held the top spot exiting spring ball, Martin’s cause is aided by the four starts he made at strong safety a year ago. Martin is expendable at strong safety due to the play of sophomore Hayden Pierce (32 tackles), who started 10 games at the position as a rookie. While two spots will feature a new starter, Army is retaining the status quo at strong safety and at the second cornerback spot, where senior Josh Jackson (40 tackles) holds down the fort.

Position(s) to watch

Offensive line Army doesn’t merely need greater consistency from the offensive line; this team also needs simple consistency in the starting lineup. Nine different lineman made at least one start a year ago, thanks to injuries and the occasional battle with ineffectiveness, and the Cadets trotted out the same starting lineup over successive games only twice: against San Diego State and Northwestern in September and against Fordham, Air Force and Rutgers over October and November. There’s enough experience and talent up front for Army to dominate the line of scrimmage – this team just needs to cement its starting five and have them remain injury-free.

The only spot that remains open for debate is right tackle, one of two positions losing a senior starter. As the Cadets left the spring, senior Will Wilson, a three-game starter at center in 2011, held the top spot. But he remains entrenched in a battle for the starting role with junior Michael Kime, who made one late-season start at left tackle as a sophomore. Either Wilson or Kime will bookend the line with senior left tackle Ben Jebb, a former understudy who cemented a starting role with a strong spring. The line is in very good shape inside: senior left guard Frank Allen has made 25 career starts, sophomore center Ryan Powis started the last eight games of 2011 in the middle and senior Matthew Villanti started the year’s six games.

It’s not a big line. Who cares? Army doesn’t bully opposing linemen as much as frustrate them to point of tears, moving this way and that, double-teaming, pulling and trapping, keeping defenders’ heads on a swivel while they look for the next lineman to come out of nowhere and remove them from an angle. And increased snaps as a starting group will only find this quintet working more and more in concert, which in turn will only increase the effectiveness of Army’s run-first, run-always offense. If the backfield can avoid injuries, the line will again pave the way for the nation’s most productive running game.

Game(s) to watch

Navy. To say that a win is long overdue stretches the boundaries of understatement. The Cadets are sitting on 10 straight losses and counting; in addition, Navy’s seven-game edge in the rivalry – 56-49-7 overall – is the program’s largest in the series’ history. After Navy comes Air Force, another pest in recent years, and then a canyon-sized gap, followed by home games against Ball State, Kent State, Temple and Boston College. The Cadets will return to bowl play if they can hold serve at home.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell To begin, here are three reasons why I hesitated to put Army here, not in the range of those teams destined for postseason play. The first is the outstanding depth and experience in the backfield – where the Cadets make things happen on offense. The second is an easier schedule than the one that led to Army’s second-half collapse last fall. The third is the fact that this is a program entering year four under Ellerson; it’s around this time, if not a year earlier, that a downtrodden program begins to see the light for good. I hesitated because I think Army can absolutely break back into bowl play: I believe that there’s more than enough talent on offense to simply carry Army to six or seven wins. But even Army’s strength, this loaded backfield, carries with it some degree of doubt. Can Steelman remain healthy? Can Maples replicate his breakout season? Can the backfield as a whole avoid injuries that plagued the group during the spring? More questions, this time about the offensive line: Can this starting five find a groove? Can they remain healthy? Does Army have enough depth to stay afloat if one, two or three miss an extended period of time? The offense has great potential; it has also several meaningful questions to address. And you can’t avoid two elephants still in the room: this defensive line and the stretch of 11 games over 11 weeks. As of now, there’s no reason to think that Army’s front will stop the F.B.S. opponents on this schedule with any consistency. And the schedule will test Army’s depth all along the defense – and on offense – from Sept. 15 through Nov. 17, allowing no time for air. Can the Cadets seal up their holes and survive this gauntlet? I’m not convinced they can. While this a better team than last year’s version, I’m not confident enough in the Cadets to project a return to bowl play.

Dream season Army beats Navy and Air Force to reclaim the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy. Those two wins join seven others – losses come to Northern Illinois, Wake Forest and Rutgers – to give Army its finest season in a generation.

Nightmare season Injuries and overall ineffectiveness plague Army’s offense. The defense is utterly unable to slow down opposing running games. The Cadets match last season’s 3-9 effort, losing to both the Falcons and Midshipmen, and Ellerson moves onto the hot seat heading into 2013.

In case you were wondering

Where do Army fans congregate? Both Army Sports and Go Black Knights do a great job of covering Army athletics. As always, list other options in the comment section below.

Army’s all-name nominee LB Geoffery Bacon.

Word Count

Through 37 teams 129,214.

Up Next

Who is No. 87? One former head coach at tomorrow’s university won 11 games in a season at this school and 11 games in a season at his next school, but surprisingly, lost 11 games in a season at his third and final college stop.

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  1. Nick Coston says:

    The next team is Shippensburg.

    In 1847, Rudolph Gonzalez’s Red Raiders went 11-14-8 as a mercenary rugby sevens team. After the entire roster died of dysentery, Gonzalez sailed the Persian Gulf for 50 years before returning to the United States. In 1901, he won the head football coaching position at Grand Valley State University (then known as Allendale Mute Swan Taxidermy School) in a bareknuckle boxing competition against incumbent and Boer emigrant Piet Retief, Jr. The Big Reds went 11-2 as a full contact badminton team in Gonzalez’s only season at the helm; he then moved on to his final coaching position at Concordia University College of Alberta. Gonzalez compiled a pedestrian 57-49 record at CUCA; his legacy at the school was particularly marred by his final season of 1922 in which the Thunder went 0-11-5 and Gonzalez was eaten by bears.

    Paul: Well, this is amazing.

  2. Nathan says:

    Up next is Miami University, the cradle of coaches.

    Dick Crum coached them to an 11-1 record in 1975, followed by an 11-1 record at UNC in 1980, and then had an 0-11 campaign at Kent State in 1989.

  3. David says:

    Miami (Ohio) is next. The coach was Dick Crum, who led the then-Redskins to 11 victories. He also led UNC to 11 victories and led(?) Kent State to 11 losses.

  4. David says:

    Nice job as usual, Paul. I share your concern about the 11 games without a break; in fact, I think it’s the biggest concern. I believe everyone shares the concern about the D line, and if things don’t go well, I won’t be surprised to see the D line get the most blame. The D line should get some help from guys coming up from the USMA Prep School; at the very least they will provide some size.

    I’m not worried about the O line — the running game did just fine last year even though 9 different guys started on the line. If the fumbleitis (EIGHT fumbles against SDSU) can be cured, *some* shuffling on the line won’t be an issue.

    Minor oversight/typo in the first paragraph — Nov 17 is Temple, not Tulane. The schedule to the side has it right, and you probably just got confused by the absence of Tulane from the Army schedule.

  5. Dave says:

    Paul – thanks as always for an awesome write-up. This die-hard Army fan can’t disagree with anything you said (except RGIII, the son of TWO U.S. Army sergeants, should be on your arbitrary top 5 list!)

    Steelman’s health IS key, and so is the D-line – we can’t give up too many big plays, because this team, Steelman or no Steelman, isn’t going to win many playing from behind.

    One other thing – you have the Navy game in November above. And on that note…

    BEAT NAVY!!!

  6. gtleviathan says:

    Nick Coston:

    Well done. I loled.

  7. philip says:

    n.c. — don’t think i’ve ever read opium-inspired prose in a sports blog before. that was fantastic.

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