WEST POINT, N.Y. – With its season turning toward oblivion, Army faces its most difficult task to date. And yet when Air Force strides into Michie Stadium, the Black Knights will have an opportunity not many teams in America have.
Beat a rival service academy on Saturday, and suddenly Army's awful season doesn't seem quite so bad. The Black Knights indeed are 1-7, but the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy is still out there to be had.
And, if nothing else, they have a shot at it.
So, motivation is not a problem for the Black Knights, record notwithstanding. Even four tough losses by a combined 31 points hasn't fazed this crew.
At least, that's what its leader sees.
"It's remarkable to me — as tough a time as we've had these last few weeks — how well we've practiced," coach Rich Ellerson said. "With the weather and some of the other distractions that have been going on, they could not have been more focused and excited to get practicing.
"There's a little bit extra on the table."
That would be the annual round-robin tournament against the other two service academies that decides who wins the trophy, emblematic of supremacy among the schools. The game against Air Force (5-3), which has won the three-way competition outright the past two years, begins Army's quest to capture the hardware for the first time since 1996. Navy beat Air Force 28-21 in overtime a month ago at Falcon Stadium and right now is in the driver's seat.
Beating the Falcons will be a tall task. Army has lost six straight and 14 of 15 in the series.
Still, recent history has Falcons coach Troy Calhoun concerned about a game that will feature the top two running teams in the nation.
Air Force was outgained on the ground by 230 yards in the first half of last year's game at Falcon Stadium and trailed Army 14-0 at halftime, a margin that with a little luck could have been double that. And Army was playing without its offensive catalyst, quarterback Trent Steelman.
The Falcons, though, outscored the Black Knights 21-0 in a third-quarter blitz that included two field goals, two touchdowns, a two-point conversion and two takeaways, and won 24-14.
"They're unquestioned the best rushing team in college football," Calhoun said. "They physically manhandled us as bad as we've been manhandled in the first half of last year's game on both sides of the ball. And you have to go play at West Point. You go back over the last 50 years of college football, there aren't very many teams that have had a whole lot of success up at West Point."
Air Force is one that has. The Black Knights haven't beaten the Falcons at Michie Stadium since star quarterback Ronnie McAda led them to a 23-7 triumph in 1996, when Army finished at 10-2 and Bob Sutton was named national coach of the year.
Despite three straight losses to Mid-American Conference foes — Kent State, Eastern Michigan and Ball State — Army has demonstrated a toughness in each game and easily could have been on the right side of the scoreboard in last week's 30-22 home loss to Ball State.
"The one thing that's evident on tape is they're an extremely capable football team," Calhoun said. "Just their depth at being able to run the football is beyond impressive."
Army is averaging a national-best 383 rushing yards per game, just 17 more than the Falcons, and each team has seven players with at least 106 yards rushing. The Black Knights have had at least two 100-yard rushers in five of the first eight games, an academy record, and are on pace to have two 1,000-yard rushers in a season for just the second time.
Junior tailback Raymond Maples leads Army with 834 yards (104.2 yards per game), while Steelman is close behind with a career-high 810. Cody Getz leads Air Force with 938, an average of 132.6 per game that's fourth-best in the nation, while quarterback Connor Dietz has rushed for 527, passed for 847 and thrown for seven scores with no interceptions and no sacks.
The two teams have combined to rush for nearly 6,000 yards and average the same 5.8 yards per carry, but the Falcons hold a distinct advantage through the air. Though ranked 117th nationally in passing yards per game (114.38), Air Force leads the country in passing efficiency (186.71).
Emotionally, this has to be a trying final season for Steelman, a four-year starter who has steadily climbed the Army record books. He tops all Army quarterbacks with 680 rushing attempts and 2,882 yards rushing, and his 10 rushing scores this season have boosted his career total to 38, first among quarterbacks and second all-time at West Point. The great Glenn Davis, who won the Heisman Trophy in 1946, is the all-time leader with 43.
Steelman's rushing total also ranks fourth all-time among all players at West Point, only 77 yards behind Davis.
"He looks forward to playing every week," Ellerson said of Steelman. "I think what he's experiencing is what a lot of guys on the team are experiencing. They can't wait to play and love to compete with another academy.
"They want to see where the standard is."