WEST POINT, N.Y. – At least Army coach Rich Ellerson has something positive to lean on as his reeling Black Knights prepare for the critical stretch run of the season.
"They haven't canceled the season and my key still worked to the office this morning, so the arrow is up," Ellerson said. "Let's go get after somebody."
That next somebody is Ball State (5-3) on Saturday at Michie Stadium, and Army (1-6) desperately needs a win. There's really more to each season than simply beating Air Force and Navy for supremacy among the service academies.
"We're trying to get better," said Ellerson, 16-28 in three-plus years at West Point. "We know if we want to play better, we need to coach better and practice better. We're going to keep the arrow up."
That's not so easy when victories keep slipping away despite the impressive offensive numbers Army's triple option has produced.
Army, which leads the nation in rushing at 389 yards per game, ran for 412 last week at Eastern Michigan as senior quarterback Trent Steelman had a record-setting day.
Steelman had 212 yards rushing, the most ever in a game by an Army quarterback, eclipsing the old mark of 208 by Tory Crawford in 1986. Steelman also had a crucial fumble late in the second quarter at the Eastern Michigan 6 as Army was driving for a go-ahead touchdown.
"He made some great plays on Saturday, but we need a couple more plays," Ellerson said. "We need to eliminate the negative plays. (Steelman) nodded his head and knows it's on him to get it done."
Steelman scored touchdowns on runs of 73 yards and 75 yards, the longest rushes of his career. It marked the first time in Army history that a player had two 70-yard touchdown runs in the same game and gave him 38 career TDs, just five shy of the school record set by Heisman Trophy winner Glenn Davis in the mid-1940s.
And yet Army lost 48-38 as Tyler Benz, in just his fourth start, threw a career-high five touchdown passes to lead the Eagles to their first victory of the season.
"Obviously, we're hyper-sensitive to the scoreboard when the game is over," Ellerson said. "During the course of the contest, we have to be completely focused and absorb those things that correlate with success. That needs to be reflected in how we practice and coach with a sense of urgency.
"We're a long way from where we should be or where I want to be. Nobody is saying, 'Boy, are we good.' We know we're behind the curve, but there's good stuff that we can build on. We're just trying to find a way to win a football game. We have our heads down."
Ball State will be the third straight Mid-American Conference foe for Army, and so far the Black Knights are batting zero. They lost to Kent State two weeks ago and carry a seven-game losing streak against MAC foes into Saturday's game.
The Cardinals promise to provide another challenge. Offensively, they are averaging 480 yards and 34 points per game and rank in the top 40 nationally in total offense (19th), passing offense (31st), rushing offense (33rd) and scoring offense (38th).
Cardinals coach Pete Lembo remains on pins and needles, nonetheless. The option can have that effect on teams that rarely see it, and his team is allowing 476 yards and nearly 35 points per game.
"In an ideal world, if you're going to play Army, you want to play them early," Lembo said. "These option teams are deep and they work at this stuff all the time. Week to week to week, they just keep working on execution and timing, so they tend to get better as the year goes on.
"There are some coaches that quite frankly don't want to schedule these academies, and I understand that. The bottom line is, can you beat them?"