Marching uphill: Army on the rise

The Baltimore Sun

Since its most recent winning season 12 years ago, the Army football program has had four head coaches. It has gone from being an independent to a member of Conference USA and back to being an independent.

This season, it switched offenses, going to a variation of the triple option used by Navy.

Little, if anything, has worked.

Though the team is certainly not the doormat it was from 2000 through 2003, when the Black Knights won a total of five games and finished the 2003 season winless, Army (3-8) enters Saturday's 109th meeting with Navy (7-4) at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia trying to show how much things have improved.

That progress, which second-year coach Stan Brock and his players say can be measured by resolve rather than Army's record, could be slowed by an injury to quarterback Chip Bowden, who sprained his right ankle Monday and might not play Saturday.

"Our players believe they can win the football game, and that's a big part of it," Brock said. "A step in getting the win is believing that you're going to win. I think we have taken that step. I don't know if we've turned any corners, but we're getting better, and the job these guys have done through the season has been spectacular."

Asked why he decided to go to the option, Brock, a 16-year NFL offensive tackle who was hired from the coaching staff after Bobby Ross retired, said, "I had to make a decision on what I thought would give us the best opportunity to win football games, and I think that having an option offense does give us an opportunity."

It certainly came as a surprise to Collin Mooney, a senior fullback who hadn't run the ball much since his freshman year of high school in Katy, Texas.

"I was excited but also a little worried at the same time," said Mooney, who had rushed just six times for 22 yards the past two seasons. "Coach said I would have something like 1,500 yards, and I was like, 'Yeah, whatever.' "

Brock was close. Mooney is ranked 11th in the nation with 1,285 yards on 214 carries, and the Black Knights are ninth in rushing overall, eight spots below Navy. Mooney said his transition in the offense was easier than for most of the players.

"There's not a lot of reads; it's pretty much you hit a hole and you're going," Mooney said. "For slots, there's a huge learning curve because they have to pick up all the reads, all the blocks. Quarterback is difficult."

It was a tough transition for junior quarterback Carson Williams, who was replaced by Bowden, a sophomore, after the Black Knights scored a total of 20 points in three straight losses to open the season. Army has been competitive in most of its games since - including a 16-7 loss to Air Force last month - before being blown out by Rutgers, 30-3, on Nov. 22.

Mike Wright, a senior wide receiver, said he has seen more progress this season than in any of his previous three years at West Point.

"This year's team, the growth of the team, not where you have one or two individuals who are superstars, more guys feeling relied upon and more guys being called upon, this year we've grown and developed the most as a team and everybody feeling involved," Wright said.

Now comes the tough part: trying to get the program to where it's competitive with the two other service academies. Except for 1996, when Army finished 10-2 under Bob Sutton, either Navy or Air Force has won the Commander in Chief's Trophy every year since 1989.

In that span, Army has had more coaches (five) than winning seasons (four) and has played in one bowl game.

Brock said the instability of the coaching staffs has hurt Army. Ross, who came out of retirement to coach the Black Knights from 2004 to 2006, said yesterday that Army has had to overcome other obstacles, one in particular that had nothing to do with football.

"The fact that most of the troops in Iraq during the war have been Army troops, and people knew that," Ross said from his home in Lexington, Va. "There were any number of times where parents would say, 'I don't want my son going to war.' It was hard for me to discount that, other than to say it's not going to last forever."

Army team captain John Plumstead, a senior linebacker, said a Navy program that will retain the trophy this year regardless of what happens Saturday and has won 12 straight games against the other academies is the model the Black Knights want to copy.

"Where Navy's program is right now, that's where we want to be," Plumstead said. "We want to keep striving to get to that level where we're winning the CIC. Obviously we're not there yet, [but] I think we're heading in the right direction. A win Saturday would be a great steppingstone."

NAVY (7-4) VS. ARMY (3-8)

Saturday, noon, Philadelphia

TV: Chs. 13, 9

Radio: 1090 AM

Line: Navy by 10 1/2

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