Nearly every day in the offseason, as Army players did their daily workouts, they talked about one thing: getting back to a bowl game.
It had been 14 years since Army had a winning record and made a bowl. In that time, there were a lot of lean years and losing. But under coach Rich Ellerson, the mindset of the players and the program started to change. Last season, Army came up just short of making a bowl, with five wins.
Now in his second season, Ellerson has done what eluded so many coaches before him. His players believe. They are more disciplined. They can run the ball. They are tough. They are physical.
They are indeed bowl-eligible.
After clinching their sixth win of the season last week against Kent State, the scene in the locker room was euphoric.
“It was a fantastic experience, one that was filled with a bunch of joy and excitement knowing we had accomplished something that hadn’t been done here in almost 15 years,” fullback Jared Hassin said in a phone interview.
It also was incredibly meaningful to a group of players eager to restore the Army tradition.
“It’s as much of an honor as anything to be able to have brought that tradition back to West Point,” Hassin said. “As a team, our motto has always been bring it back, which stands for bringing the tradition back to the core of cadets, to the Academy. It’s always been on our minds. To finally have accomplished that is something that’s a huge honor for all of us.”
Especially for a group of seniors who had won three games in each season before Ellerson took over.
“We didn’t come in with a three-year plan or a five-year plan,” said Ellerson, a triple-option expert hired from Cal Poly. “We wanted to keep faith with the players that were in the program then. We were going to ask them to believe in some things and choose a path and put a voice on the program and prepare in a certain way. We expected to win from day one.
“Last year’s senior class, this year’s senior class, really a remarkable effort on their part because that was an intellectual choice they had to make to believe in what we were doing and how we were doing things and the voice we put on it. Now for the younger guys, there’s never been any other way. Those are the guys that broke through the glass and changed the expectations.”
Of course, the season is not over, not by a long shot. Army (6-4) faces two difficult games to close out the year -- against Notre Dame on Saturday at the new Yankee Stadium, and against Navy on Dec. 11 in Philadelphia.
The Black Knights also do not have an automatic bowl tie-in this season, but are backup options for the Armed Forces Bowl and Military Bowl. Still, it is hard to see a 6-6 Army team getting left out. The strides it has made this season are worthy of praise.
Trent Steelman has taken command of the triple-option offense as a sophomore. Hassin, a sophomore transfer from Air Force, has four 100-yard games this season. Those two have allowed Army to have one of the best rushing offenses in the country, ranking No. 8. Last week, Army scored 45 points on Kent State, its highest offensive output against an FBS team since a 48-29 win over Cincinnati on Oct. 9, 2004.
Another key reason for success -- turnover margin, something Ellerson has stressed since the day he arrived. Army is No. 5 in the country with an average turnover margin of 1.2 per game, with 22 turnovers gained and just 10 lost.
But if one thing is missing, it is consistency. Army has alternated wins and losses over the last six weeks, and three of its losses came by a touchdown or less. The Black Knights had leads late in all three of those games.
Notre Dame provides yet another challenge. If the way the Irish stopped the Navy triple option is any indication, things could go in favor of Army. Navy had 367 yards rushing in its 35-17 win. But the team is prepared to see a squad that has made the appropriate adjustments.
Still, it is nice to have bowl eligibility secured for the first time since 1996.
“We’ve got something done that was maybe becoming heavier than it needed to be,” Ellerson said. “That’s what I sensed, some of our guys were able to exhale and say, ‘We got that behind us. Wow, we’ve broken through and now who’s next?’
“They feel good about themselves, they love this football team, they love the game, they feel good about themselves and they’re anxious to test themselves again.”