Navy’s 17-3 win over Army on Saturday was not the closest final score during the Mids’ current winning streak over their rivals. That actually came in the 2006 game, in which Navy prevailed, 26-14. Statistically, that game looked a lot like the 2009 edition of the rivalry. Navy had 13 first downs on Saturday, while Army had 10. In 2006 it was even, with each team putting up 15 apiece. The Mids outgained Army by 60 yards this year, while in 2006 they only had a 22-yard advantage. Army went into the locker room at halftime with a 3-0 lead on Saturday, and trailed Navy by only a touchdown going into the 4th quarter. In 2006, the teams were tied at 7 at the half, while Army again trailed Navy by a lone touchdown going into the 4th quarter. Navy’s offense scored only 17 points in both games; in 2006, the Mids’ defense provided a cushion by scoring 9 points in the 4th quarter thanks to a Keenan Little interception return and a late safety on a Tyler Tidwell sack. Even the current makeup of the two teams is similar to the way they were in 2006. Navy featured a young offense in that year’s game, starting only four seniors. Navy’s offense in 2009? Four seniors. In both games, Army’s offense was led by highly-touted freshman quarterbacks; the Arkansas-recruited Carson Williams in 2006, and option-messiah Trent Steelman in 2009. The similarities are striking, and it could be argued that 2006 was the closer contest in more ways than just the final score.
It was so close, in fact, that Army’s head coach at the time, Bobby Ross, told the CBS sideline reporter after the game that his program was “closing the gap” with Navy. It was a point he continued to make in the postgame press conference:
“We would like to get eventually to a level playing field with Navy,” Ross said. “That would be one of my biggest things in our program, to get to that point. This year, I didn’t feel they were that much better.
“My personal feeling is that I think our program is closer. We were playing a lot of freshmen. We have a good (talent) base in our program right now, a good recruiting base, and we’re very solid defensively. There’s more development to be done offensively.”
Many people agreed with Ross’ assessment. They were wrong. In the three years since Ross opined that Navy wasn’t “that much better” and that the Army program was “getting closer,” Army hasn’t even managed a touchdown against the Midshipmen, going 0-3 while being outscored 89-6. Army’s record is 11-25 over that span. Navy’s is 25-14, with two bowl appearances and a third on the way. Since that 2006 game, Army has gone 0-3 against Navy, while Navy has gone 2-1 against Notre Dame. Think about that for a second. The two programs are on completely different planes. It was this realization that played a large part in Stan Brock’s firing last year:
“Yes, (the Navy game) did impact my decision,” Anderson said. “I’ll tell you what, I thought we made progress, closing the gap between us (and Navy). That game was an eye-opener.”
It’s puzzling, then, why so many people seem primed and ready to make the same wrong assumptions in 2009 that they did in 2006.
If this game proved anything, it showed Navy (9-4) isn’t going to push Army around anymore
Did it? A lot of Army (and Navy) fans seem to think so, even though the nearly identical 2006 game clearly didn’t signal the end of Navy’s supremacy. I’m not sure why there’s a rush to believe that things are so different now. It takes a lot more than one game to measure progress. Is VMI “closing the gap” on Army? That game was even closer than Army-Navy. The Army-Air Force game was a lot closer last year than it was this year. Does that mean that Army is closing in on Navy, but getting farther away from Air Force? Is Navy “just one or two players away” from overtaking Ohio State? Should I be making reservations for the Orange Bowl next year? Of course not, but those are the kind of conclusions that people are reaching after watching Saturday’s relatively close contest. Yes, Army has a new coach, and they did win 5 games this year. But how much have they really changed? Army has a capable defense coupled with an offense that makes Baby Jesus cry… Just like they have for the last 5 years. If Stan Brock was still the coach, would you really have been all that surprised to see Army beat Eastern Michigan, Ball State, Vanderbilt, VMI, and North Texas? Maybe Vanderbilt, although even the Commodores were only 2-10 this season. In fact, the three teams that Brock beat in 2008 combined for more wins (13) than the five teams Rich Ellerson’s team defeated this year (8). No, I’m not mocking Army’s strength of schedule; frankly, they’re playing a lot of the teams that used to schedule Navy, but don’t answer the phone anymore when their caller ID says “Annapolis, MD.” But it is important look beyond one game against Navy– which was still a 14-point loss, by the way– to measure the state of the Army football program.
Don’t get me wrong; Army has gone through 4 different coaches over the course of their 8-game losing streak to Navy, and Rich Ellerson is probably the best suited of the bunch for bringing the Black Knights back to the realm of respectability. Unlike Stan Brock, Ellerson isn’t being forced to run an offense he doesn’t really know and doesn’t believe in. Bobby Ross was caught off-guard by how much time and energy it would take to rebuild Army football, while Ellerson appears dedicated to the long haul. And unlike Todd Berry, Army fans don’t pray for Ellerson to be burned in the fire of eternal damnation, which is probably worth something. Few would deny that Ellerson has the potential to make Army better; but people are so anxious for that to happen that they see things that aren’t there.
There was “closing the gap” talk even before the game. Somewhat surprisingly, it came from Ellerson himself:
“We expect to win. We know it’s going to be hard. We know it’s going to be an uphill fight. No disrespect to Navy and what they’ve accomplished, obviously they are the more accomplished football team, but we’re gaining on them,” Ellerson said.
Comments like these make me wonder if Ellerson really has as much respect for Coach Niumatalolo as the pregame stories would have you believe. Despite paying lip service to Navy’s accomplishments, he doesn’t appear to have much of a grasp for what Niumatalolo, Paul Johnson, and their staffs have built at the Naval Academy. The Midshipmen have won an unprecedented 15-straight games against their two service academy rivals. The record is made even more impressive when you consider that, unlike the Air Force streak from 1997-2002, Navy’s run has come at a time when there is another service academy that consistently finishes with a winning record. Since 2003, Navy has won almost as many games against BCS opponents (15) as Army has won games, period (20). The last seven years at Navy have included 3 seasons with 9+ wins, 3 wins over teams ranked in the top 25, and one top 25 ranking of their own. The Mids have been a model of consistent success. Meanwhile, Ellerson has been at Army for less than a year. His team scored less (15 ppg) than than the oft-criticized non-option teams of Berry, Ross, and Brock (19.3 ppg). He doesn’t even have a full recruiting class to his name yet. Without that, what “gaining” can really be done? It was a strange comment to make only 3 weeks after he needed to come from behind in the 4th quarter to beat VMI.
Navy isn’t good enough to take games against Army for granted, but they were two-touchdown favorites in the game for a reason. If you want to gauge the relative standing of the two programs, you need to do more than look at one game in a vacuum.