August 23, 2009

The Sun Shines Down On Michie Stadium

You could feel something different in the air yesterday. As folks drove up the Palisades to get to Michie Stadium, the storms and heavy rainfall made for a precarious drive. The ride home was no better. A challenging day of travel for a football game, let alone a scrimmage. The gray skies gave the feeling of dusk, not of early afternoon.

But for two hours during Army's scrimmage on Saturday, there was not a drop of rain to be found. The clouds broke, the sky turned blue, and as the Black Knights took the field, the sun shined bright on Blaik Field.

As the field lay empty, the video screen at the north end zone lit up, and music began to echo through the stands. In past seasons, the stands would be empty, especially with the weather in the area. Not this year. Something in the air says that this year could be a little different.
As the video and music continued to play, each eye was on the screen. Each person in the stadium was reminded of the rich traditions of Army Football. The unstoppable Mr. Inside and Mr. Outside. The easily recognizable gate of Pete Dawkins. The long stride of Mike Mayweather. The images of Red Blake, and the more recent memories of Bob Sutton. And then there was Jim Young, his face next to the trophy full of Peaches, Army's second bowl victory in his three years as head coach. Young was the last coach to lead Army to a complete turnaround, and you couldn't help but feel like Army's next turnaround maestro was about to run on the field.

Drawn to the awe of years before, the fans quickly turned their attention to the southeast end zone, where the Army football team took the field, entering as they will prior to each home game this year.

Everything was different. Attention to detail. Repetition. Discipline. Enthusiasm. Each aspect of Army's preparation is done with purpose. While the day was set for learning, the crowd could not help but notice the heightened levels of energy and fervor. Army head coach Rich Ellerson had a different view. "There was not a lot of emotion out there and that's not us. Today was very business-line, very focused. They were thinking out there today and we were certainly efficient." If Saturday showed controlled enthusiasm, it wasn't noticeable in the stands.

As the Black Knights took the field on their first series, there was a very noticeable difference from what was seen in the spring game. Lining up under center with the first team on the first series was freshman quarterback Trent Steelman. Opening the initial drive with two pitches to junior slotback Patrick Mealy for big gains down the right sideline, Steelman capped the drive by taking the ball himself down the left sideline for a 32 yard touchdown run. A good block by Mealy led the way.

Not to be outdone by the resurgent offense, the defense started out just as strong. The Black team (scout) wore the numbers that Eastern Michigan players will be wearing at each position. As the first play from scrimmage for Black progressed, the quarterback put the ball in the air.

Mario Hill covered the field corner position and made a perfectly timed cut to pull the ball in for an interception. The coaching staff kept the Black team on the field, and junior Stephen Anderson continued where he left off, making two key stops.

The day would continue with Army's first teams dominating. Offensively, the execution was crisp and precise. Efficiency was the characteristic of the day. Last season, Army's real success came with the ability of the fullback to make plays up the middle. While still important, the execution on the outside was what really made the difference. As Army would look to pitch the ball last season, the running back would often get the ball deep in the backfield before he made his turn. Defenses would key on the run and Army saw big losses or small gains. This year, the pitch is made with much more forward momentum. The backs made their turns and caught the pitch mid-stride with the ball only a yard or two behind the line of scrimmage, ensuring that there was momentum downhill and limiting the chance for a loss. In addition, ball protection was perfect. The first team did not make a fumble all day.

Damion Hunter was one of the most improved players on the field. On his first reception, he caught a ball in the left flat from Steelman and was hit immediately. Somehow, after being thrown in the air, he came down on his hands and feet, popped up, and took the ball 40 yards for a first down. He caught a Steelman pass over the middle for a touchdown, and ended the half with a 50+ yard over-the-shoulder catch off a pass from Carson Williams. Hunter seemed to show an ability to make a cut and run before he even pulled in the ball, and his yards-after-catch (YAC) numbers were big.

At running back, Mealy showed a burst that fans have been looking for in a junior slotback. His speed and compact running ability made him seem to slide off tacklers and gain large chunks of yardage.

Chip Bowden continued his hard nosed mentality at the quarterback spot, and his progress with throwing the ball was evident. He will be called upon this fall, and he will show how he has grown.

On defense, the "swarm" mentality has taken root. The defensive line was aggressive and spent a lot of time in the Black backfield. They were just as aggressive against the run, where they closed the holes and made tackles.

Stephen Anderson and sophomore Steve Erzinger played strong at linebacker, and while their hits were limited due to the controlled limited contact nature of the scrimmage, they were constantly in the right places. Anderson made a number of key stops and pulled in a one handed interception off a deflected pass.

The secondary played tight, closing out any chance of a complete pass for a big gain all day. Antwan Aaron and Mario Hill[/db] shut down the passing game, and Donovan Travis has adapted well to the safety position. Army's defense let up just one field goal in the first half, and that was only after situational play by the coaching staff gave the Black team good field position.

The goal of the coaching staff was to throw different looks at the Black Knights. To challenge them. With each different look, each new challenge, Army steeped up to the plate and met it head on. Mistakes were few, and positive progress was made.
In years past, Army's offense always seemed to be a step behind at this point in the summer. The defense was made up of the players that were loud and cheering after a big play. Defensively, there was no change this time around. But the offense was crisp, exciting, and successful. There just may be a good shot that this team will put up some points on September 5th in Ypsilanti, MI.

There was something special building on Blaik Field Saturday. The clouds broke, and the sun was shining on the Black Knights. Maybe, just possibly, the clouds of the past 13 years may be parting as well. Maybe this time we are really seeing the start of sunnier Saturdays at West Point.

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