PHILADELPHIA — Rich Ellerson is sponsoring a cadet from Slovenia at West Point, and Thanksgiving only validated what Army’s second-year coach has long known.
“His family came to visit. It was only their second time in the country,” Ellerson said. “Only the dad speaks a little bit of English. They don’t know football from third base. They’d never been to West Point before, and they drive through the Thayer Gate. By the time they get to our house, they don’t know anything about football, but they know we better beat Navy.”
Easier said than done, of course.
“All they had to do was drive down the street and look at the front of everybody’s house,” Ellerson continued. “They’re not sure what the heck that means, but they know we better beat Navy. Our guys have clearly grown up with that.”
Have they ever. And it’s been a little too painful for far too long at West Point.
The programs meet on Saturday at Lincoln Financial Field in yet another installment of this proud rivalry, and none of these Black Knights has experienced the exhilaration of beating Navy. The Midshipmen, in fact, have defeated Army eight straight times and hold a 54-49-7 advantage in the series. Last year, Navy won, 17-3.
But you wouldn’t know it by listening to Army. The Black Knights (6-5), after all, are bowl bound for the first time in 14 years, and as a result, they are brimming with confidence.
“We’re a better team (than last year),” senior defensive end Josh McNary said. “We will redeem ourselves. We will win. There is no next time for us. It’s the last game.”
Give credit to McNary, who has 27½ sacks and 48½ tackles for loss in his career, both program bests at West Point, for having the right mindset. But it’s going to take more than words to right this ship.
Navy’s streak is the longest in the series by either academy, and began with a 58-12 rout in 2002. The scores that followed aren’t pretty, either: 34-6, 42-13, 42-23, 26-14, 38-3, 34-0 and the aforementioned 17-3.
“Clearly, this (beating Navy) is something that’s been missing in their time here, something that they can’t wait for another opportunity to right the balance sheet, if you will,” Ellerson said. “Eight is enough.”
Take a closer look, and it’s even more impressive. The Middies (8-3) have surrendered just six points over the last three games and have not allowed a touchdown since the fourth quarter of the 2006 game.
“We talk about it all the time,” Navy senior cornerback Kevin Edwards said. “That’s what we live for, not giving up points. If we can go this week and not give up a touchdown again, I think that would make the win even sweeter.”
It looms as a more difficult task this time, though.
In less than two years, Ellerson has transformed Army into a winner again. For the first time in 14 years, the Navy game won’t end the season for the Black Knights, who will play SMU in the Armed Forces Bowl in Dallas on Dec. 30. Navy also will play in the postseason, against San Diego State in the Poinsettia Bowl on Dec. 23.
A year ago, Army led Navy 3-0 at halftime and the Black Knights forced three fumbles and limited the Midshipmen to 191 yards of total offense. This year, as they try to build off that, sophomore quarterback Trent Steelman has the experience of playing two full years as the Army starter. Also, the Black Knights are healthy after a long layoff.
And maybe, just maybe, Navy is susceptible this year. Despite the heroics of quarterback Ricky Dobbs — he has rushed for 40 touchdowns over the last two years, an NCAA quarterback record over consecutive seasons — Navy’s service-academy supremacy ended this year. Air Force beat both Navy and Army to claim the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy that the Middies had held for seven straight years.
Navy, ranked fifth in the country in rushing at 302.6 yards per game, managed just two field goals and 312 yards of total offense (209 rushing and 103 passing) in a 14-6 loss to the Falcons. In last December’s win over Army, the Middies had only 247 yards of total offense (186 rushing and 61 passing).
The teams have had three common opponents, the most notable of which is Notre Dame, both in the New York metropolitan area. The Midshipmen hammered the Irish, 35-17, at New Meadowlands Stadium in October and the Black Knights fell to coach Brian Kelly’s crew, 27-3, a month later at Yankee Stadium.
That was Army’s last game and the Black Knights were kept out of the end zone for the first time all season. They also rushed for a season-low 135 yards. It snapped Army’s 10-game streak with at least 230 yards rushing and factored into the equation that made Navy an eight-point favorite on Saturday.
Rest assured, though, the Black Knights are ready to make amends.
“When you have to go through something that’s as painful as not playing well on a big stage, you need to take advantage of it and grow from it,” Ellerson said. “I talk of the senior class, how much they’ve accomplished in these last two seasons, how much they’ve turned the expectations, both in the background and the corps and the locker room and then out there between the white lines.
“They’ve done so much, but here’s the next challenge. Here’s that next evolutionary step that has to take place to complete this culture.”
AP Sports Writer David Ginsburg in Baltimore contributed to this report.