WEST POINT, N.Y. – Army coach Rich Ellerson has been searching for that elusive signature victory. He might just have it now.
Trent Steelman rushed for 101 yards and scored twice, the Army defense held Air Force's high-powered offense in check, and the Black Knights beat the Falcons 41-21 on Saturday.
How big was that?
Army (2-7) stopped a 13-game skid in service academy games and beat an archrival it had defeated just once in the previous 15 games.
"That was fun, huh?" Ellerson said afterward with a big smile. "This is a milestone for us. I'm really proud of how the guys prepared. This is a good football team. It doesn't have a good record."
Most importantly, Army stayed in the hunt for its first Commander-in-Chief's Trophy since 1996. The coveted hardware goes to the service academy with the best record in the annual round-robin competition between the schools. Air Force (5-4) has won it outright the past two seasons, but Navy beat the Falcons 28-21 in overtime a month ago and plays Army in the season finale next month.
"When you get here on day one, it's beat Navy, beat Air Force," Ellerson said. "We've got half of the equation right."
Steelman was injured and did not play against Air Force last season in a 24-14 road loss. He more than made up for that absence on this day in a contest featuring the top two rushing teams in the nation.
"It's a feeling I had never experienced before," the senior quarterback said after his first career victory over the Falcons. "It's a feeling I wouldn't change for the world. It's a big win for our program, but we have to turn around and go right back to work."
Steelman, who moved past the great Glenn Davis into third place all-time in rushing at West Point with 2,983 yards, passed for 100 yards and guided an attack that netted 314 yards rushing and held the ball for 36 minutes.
"We ran the ball up and down the field," Ellerson said. "That's what we do. I don't think there was any lack of confidence. That's frankly what we expect."
Army entered the game leading the nation in rushing at 383 yards per game and the Falcons were second at 366.
The Black Knights also did not commit a turnover, a big deal for a team that had committed 14 and gained only seven in the previous eight games.
In playing its best game of the season, the much-maligned Army defense intercepted three passes, stopped a fourth-down run from its own 1, forced Air Force to punt four times, and recovered a fumble in the end zone for a touchdown.
Air Force, which had only punted 15 times in its first eight games, finished with 103 yards rushing on 43 attempts.
"The entire defense played with amazing energy," Army defensive tackle Robert Kough said. "I think it was the energy coming out. We were just working hard."
With the help of a successful onside kick, Air Force scored twice in the fourth quarter to throw a brief scare into the Michie Stadium crowd. Jon Lee scored on a 4-yard run and Connor Dietz ran in from the 13, but Army linebacker Nate Combs recovered a bad snap in the end zone that had gone through Dietz's hands to stop the rally with 2:50 left and then intercepted backup Kale Pearson at the goal line in the final seconds.
"It's not that we let our guard down or anything," Air Force senior offensive lineman Jason Kons said. "They were prepared for our attack and handled us well."
Cody Getz, who did not play in last week's win over Nevada because of an injured ankle, finished with 23 yards rushing on 14 carries. He entered the game averaging 132.6, fourth best in the nation. Dietz was 17 of 29 passing for a career-high 185 yards and rushed for 37 yards on 10 carries.
"They played a great game offensively, defensively," Dietz said. "They did everything we didn't. They smacked us in the mouth all game."
The Army defense began to turn the tide in the second quarter. The Black Knights stopped Air Force on fourth down from the 1 and snared two interceptions that the offense turned into 13 points and a 20-7 halftime lead.
The Falcons entered the game ranked near last nationally in passing but first in pass efficiency, and the Black Knights became victims on Air Force's first two drives.
After taking a 7-0 lead to start the game, Army, desperate for a victory, used two timeouts on the Falcons' first possession, the second coming before the snap on a third-and-goal play from the 13. Whatever strategy the Black Knights devised went for naught when Josh Jackson was called for pass interference at the goal line. Wes Cobb scored on a 1-yard run two plays later to tie it.
Fourth-down gambles are the norm for both teams with their high-powered run games, and when Air Force forced Army to punt after three downs and drove to the Army 1 there was no hesitation with so much at stake. But the Black Knights stuffed Dietz for no gain on fourth down. The Falcons asked for a review of the play, but the power was out at Michie Stadium and the officials were unable to review it.
"It's one play," Air Force coach Troy Calhoun said. "That was an important stretch, but it wasn't the only stretch, not at all. Today was convincing. That's a credit to Army, big-time credit to Army."
Pinned at his own goal line, Steelman then stunned the Falcons with just his 26th completion of the year, a pass in the right flat to a wide-open Raymond Maples, who turned it into a 53-yard gain up the right side. The Air Force defense stiffened, and Army had to settle for Daniel Grochowski's 20-yard and a 10-7 lead early in the second quarter.
Dietz completed his first three passes to run his season total to 79 attempts without an interception, a big part of why Air Force has been so successful with its limited passing attack. That streak ended when freshman defensive back Brandon Fusilier-Jeffires picked off a Dietz pass in the left flat near midfield.
Army capitalized again with the pass as Steelman rolled out and hit Chevaughn Lawrence for 17 yards on a third-and-7 play to set up a first-and-goal at the 7. Two timeouts by the Falcons didn't help as Steelman scored from the 1 for a 17-7 lead with 1:39 left in the second quarter.
Unfazed, Dietz hit Marcus Hendricks with a 28-yard pass to get the Falcons moving after the ensuing kickoff and a 19-yard completion to Ty MacArthur gave Air Force a first down at the Army 28. But when Dietz tried to strike again with a pass down the middle, linebacker Geoffery Bacon intercepted and returned it 31 yards to set up Grochowski's 36-yard field goal with 3 seconds remaining.
Air Force trailed Army 14-0 at the half last year and rallied for a 24-14 victory at Falcon Stadium. The Black Knights didn't let that happen this time, forcing Air Force to punt on its first three possessions of the second half and scoring two straight touchdowns to take a commanding 35-7 lead.