WEST POINT, N.Y. – Army is off to its best start in 14 years, and the Black Knights are brimming with newfound pride.
"You can definitely tell the confidence is growing," quarterback Trent Steelman said. "When we step on the field, we expect to put the ball in the end zone. When we don't, we're disappointed."
Coach Rich Ellerson's option attack and swarming defense have paid dividends. Army (3-1) rides a two-game winning streak into its game Saturday against Temple (3-1) at Michie Stadium, a matchup of teams on the rise.
The Owls (3-1), forlorn no more, have won 12 of their last 15 games under coach Al Golden, and they're bound to be an ornery bunch after losing at No. 22 Penn State a week ago.
"Temple is the best football team that we've faced this year," Ellerson said. "They are easily the most physical football team we've faced this year. They're a program that was in a bowl game a year ago, and they're off to a great start."
The Nittany Lions held Temple to eight first downs in a 22-13 win, but the game was a vast improvement for the Owls. Outscored 154-9 in their previous four games against Penn State, they allowed only one touchdown and took a 13-6 lead in the first quarter on Bernard Pierce's two scoring runs.
However, Pierce, who was being touted by Temple as a Heisman Trophy candidate, had to be helped off the field midway through the third quarter with an apparent ankle injury. He was later carted from the sideline to the locker room and will be a gametime decision.
"Certainly, he's a great player, but he is in and out of most football games," Ellerson said. "We are just going to go in expecting it will be that again. They've been productive and played well without him. I don't think they're going to freak out if his ankle's a little bit sore in this series or that half."
Army likely has had this game circled since the start of the season. It's a payback chance for a team that came within a victory of making its first postseason appearance since 1996. A year ago, Temple scored 14 unanswered points in the fourth quarter to break open a tie game and seal a 27-13 victory over Army at Lincoln Financial Field.
Temple stopped Army midway through the fourth quarter on fourth-and-inches at the Black Knights' own 24. The Owls then had an interception overturned by replay and scored the go-ahead touchdown three plays later.
The memory lingers.
"They made plays," Ellerson said. "The thing we need to focus on is how to win those situations that clearly we were outplayed in down the stretch."
Army beat Duke 35-21 last week, ending a 17-game road losing streak against ACC teams. The Black Knights forced five turnovers — three interceptions and two fumble recoveries — that led to 28 points.
That type of play has been the team's calling card this season as the Black Knights are off to their best start since the 1996 team began 4-0. Army is plus-9 in turnover margin and has scored 69 of its 118 points (58.5 percent) following turnovers. The Black Knights rank third in the nation in turnover margin at plus-2.25 and are 7-0 in Ellerson's two seasons when on the plus side in turnovers.
"They are eliminating the things that cause you to lose. That's the first step," Golden said. "If you look at the last eight or nine games and how well they've played, this is a different team than it was when we faced them a year ago."
Army was penalized 14 times for 100 yards in the Temple game. Through four games this year, the Black Knights have only 15.
And Ellerson's option is purring. Army is averaging 275 yards rushing per game, has only three turnovers, and Steelman threw his first two touchdown passes of the season at Duke.
"The difference between this year and last year is the deception our offense presents," Steelman said. "On every play we run, the ball is always hidden and a couple of players are moving in the backfield, trying to create problems and hide where the ball is going."
The Owls are well aware.
"You can't be careful in this game," Temple offensive guard Wayne Tribue said. "They're a good team. We have to play our best game."
Notes: A win over Temple would improve Ellerson's record at Army to 9-8 and be the best 17-game start for an Army coach since Tom Cahill posted a 14-3 mark in 1966-67 ... This is the first time Army has been two games above .500 since finishing the 1996 season at 10-2 ... The Temple defense has given up just one TD in each of past three games.