Army finally has something positive to build on, even if the deck is stacked against it.
Fresh from a rousing victory over Boston College, its first of the season after four straight losses, Army meets Kent State (4-1) on Saturday at Michie Stadium knowing full well that continuing the momentum supplied by Trent Steelman's game-winning touchdown in the final minute against the Eagles could be fleeting.
Army has not won back-to-back games in two years and has lost eight straight games following victories.
"You have to put that behind you," Army coach Rich Ellerson said. "You have to leave it all behind. This is a resilient outfit that knows how to stay in the moment and stay focused on the next opportunity. It's about emotional resilience and the ability to take some hits, which we did, and play through."
The Army offense got back on track in the 34-31 win over the Eagles, rushing for 516 yards and gaining 595 yards of total offense. It was the eighth-best rushing game in West Point history and its total offense was the most ever against a current Football Bowl Subdivision opponent.
That performance boosted the Black Knights back to the top spot in the nation in rushing at 397.2 yards per game, eight yards better than Air Force. Their ground-gobbling triple option means triple trouble for opponents. Army is the only team to have three players ranked in the top 50 in rushing nationally — tailback Raymond Maples is fifth with 134.2 yards per game, fullback Larry Dixon is tied for 35th at 92, and Steelman is 46th at 86.2.
"They're really, really good," said Kent State head coach Darrell Hazell, who served as Army's wide receivers and tight ends coach for two seasons in the late 1990s. "Obviously, when they're not, they're susceptible to some things. They understand where their weaknesses are and the importance of making sure that we don't expose those weaknesses."
The Army defense also has begun to play better. The Black Knights sacked BC's Chase Rettig five times, never allowing the Eagles' passing game to gain any sustained momentum. BC did get a 99-yard touchdown run by Andre Williams and the Black Knights were fooled on an end-around that Alex Amidon took in for another score. But the defense stopped the Eagles cold when the game was on the line, and Steelman scored on a 29-yard run to win it with 45 seconds left.
"We have four freshmen who are playing a significant role on the defensive side of the ball," Ellerson said. "The game itself is slowing down for them. They're getting used to being out there and seeing the ups and downs, the swings and speed that take place in a college football game. All of those things are becoming routine for them. They're now better able to focus on what really is challenging about this next opponent and what they do."
Ellerson is hopeful the comeback victory over BC will spark a midseason surge.
"We're trying to make a run," he said. "Last week, we were somehow, some way. This week, we're trying to be somehow, some way. We're going to let the guys come out of their shoes again."
Army faces a team that's been on a roll. Kent State is off to its best start since 1977 and has won three straight, two of them on the road. The Golden Flashes beat Buffalo 23-7 on the road, edged Ball State 45-43 at home, and last week defeated Eastern Michigan 41-14 away from home.
"We have been playing up to what we're capable of doing," Kent State senior cornerback Sid Saulter said. "We have to go back to our basics and get everything right ... and we'll put another strong effort against Army."
Offensively, the Golden Flashes are averaging 401.6 yards and 32.8 points per game, and their ground game has been potent, too, averaging 201.8 yards per game, 30th best in the nation.
And they have a multi-threat player in Dri Archer, who had three touchdowns against Eastern Michigan — one rushing, one receiving and one on a kickoff return. Archer leads the country in all-purpose yards (230.6 per game) and ranks fourth in scoring (13.2 points per game) with 11 touchdowns, five on the ground, three receiving, and three on kickoff returns. He's also the nation's top kick returner, averaging 47.7 yards per return on 11 attempts.
Archer's performance helped spoil EMU's homecoming, and Saturday is homecoming at West Point. An encore, perhaps?
"They do something in every phase of the game that keeps you awake at night," Ellerson said. "Offensively, they'll pound you. They aggressively play-action the opponent. They do some things with that run game that have been a little bit of a challenge for us.
"We have a full plate this week."