WEST POINT, N.Y. – In the Rich Ellerson era, Army's triple-option offense has become dangerous on the ground.
Just not as dangerous as a loose ball.
One year removed from owning the third-best turnover margin in the nation, the Black Knights committed eight fumbles, losing three, en route to a 23-20 loss Saturday vs. San Diego State, the first California opponent to visit Michie Stadium since 1980.
San Diego State scored 33 seconds into the game and went ahead 14-0 before Army fought back, but a final drive late in the fourth fell short.
"Didn't do everything right, didn't do most things right, but we competed," Ellerson said. "This is going to have a happy ending if we continue to grow."
Army quarterback Trent Steelman ran for a career-high 157 yards and scored three touchdowns in his team's home opener. The Black Knights (0-2) outrushed San Diego State, 403-146. Malcolm Brown added 77 yards on the ground.
"Yards don't win games," Ellerson said. "Turnovers is what correlates to the final score."
Down by a field goal with 2:48 remaining, Army marched to the 25-yard line. But the Aztecs defense, one of the nation's best in facing triple-option offenses, held with a pass breakup, a sack and a forced fumble. A last-ditch, fourth-down pass fell incomplete, as Army was denied its 650th win in program history.
"To spot them those turnovers and those big plays early in the game," Ellerson said, "and give yourself a chance on the final possession to win is remarkable resilience and toughness."
Army is 0-2 for the first time since 2008.
The game, attended by former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani as West Point remembered the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, was the first matchup of the two schools, and featured a tribute to the victims and heroes at halftime.
Army cadets passed out American flags to fans before the game, and first responders were among those honored. Also, a day before the 10th anniversary of the attacks in New York and Washington, a large American flag was unfurled as part of the tribute that included the West Point band.
Fans stopped to sign a memorial banner that will be presented Sunday at ceremonies at Ground Zero. Giuliani spoke during the ceremony.
"I'm here because West Point is honoring our first responders: the firefighters, police officers, rescue workers who were our first line of defense against this attack against America," Giuliani told the AP. "I love West Point. I've been coming to games since the 1980s."
After spotting San Diego State a 14-0 lead, Army answered with the next two scores, but couldn't build off it. Steelman ran in from a yard out to cap an 11-play, 71-yard drive, to get on the board, and the Cadets evened it up when Steelman posted an 11-yard run midway through the second. The second score came on third-and-goal from the 11, salvaging a 15-play, 82-yard drive.
San Diego State took a 20-14 lead on running back Ronnie Hillman's second score of the day, a 20-yard run around two tacklers that capped an 80-yard drive with 2:18 left in the third.
The Black Knights' home opener, which the Aztecs never trailed, also marked the first time that a California team had visited Michie Stadium since 1980.
San Diego State (2-0, 0-0 Mountain West) did not commit a turnover for the third straight game. It's the first time San Diego State has done that since making the jump to Division I, now the FBS, in 1969. And the Aztecs are now 11-4 over the last 15 games, their best stretch in 33 years.
"They came out ready to fight, and we expected that," San Diego State quarterback Ryan Lindley said. "We just needed to come with a little more intensity."
The schedule doesn't get any easier for the Black Knights, who play host to Northwestern, out of the Big Ten, on Saturday.