It wasn't always pretty, but when the final gun sounded, it sure felt sweet. The Army Black Knights, playing in their first game under head coach Rich Ellerson, took a knee in a victory formation as the final 29 seconds ticked off the clock. After a game that saw a number of ups and downs for Army (1-0), the Black Knights held their hands and heads high as they beat the Eastern Michigan Eagles (0-1) 27-14 at Rynearson Stadium.
In the first half, Army dominated Eastern Michigan and was in complete control. The Eagles were only able to muster 43 yards of total offense against the new-look Black Knight defense. After holding Eastern Michigan to three-and-out on after receiving the opening kickoff, Army started their first offensive series from their own 43. Freshman quarterback Trent Steelman took control of the offense and began to move the Black Knights downfield. After two quarterback keepers by Steelman and a short run up the middle by fullback CeDarius Williams, Ellerson was faced with his first difficult decision of the day. Facing 4th and 1 at the Eastern Michigan 48, Army elected to go for it and Steelman converted on a two yard run. After two pass plays that yielded a net of -2 yards, Steelman hit slotback Patrick Mealy with an option pitch for a 14 yard gain. The option pitch, which Army could never get going in 2008, proved effective throughout the game. Army continued to run the offense effectively, running strong and completing a 9 yard pass to Damion Hunter. The offensive line fired off the ball, moving downfield and opening holes for the run. Facing a second and goal at the Eastern Michigan 5, Steelman again found Mealy on the pitch, and Mealy found the end zone. In true option form, Army ran 12 plays for 57 yards and ate up almost seven minutes off the clock. Kicker Matt Campbell missed the extra point, and Army finished their first offensive series with at 6-0 lead.
On EMU's second offensive series, quarterback Andy Schmidt found Jacory Stone for a 13-yard gain following an incompletion. On the next play, Schmidt was pressured by Josh McNary, threw deep, and was intercepted by Army safety Donovan Travis. Travis returned the ball 50 yards to give Army great field position, but Army was unable to capitalize and was forced to punt.
Army again found the end zone in the second quarter following a fumble recovery by linebacker Andrew Rodriguez at the Eastern Michigan seven yard line. Following a false start penalty and a run for no gain by Williams, Steelman again used the option pitch to slotback Jameson Carter for a 12 yard touchdown. Army was in command with a 13-0 lead.
The score would stay the same going into halftime. Throughout the first half, Army's defense showed the aggressive trait associated with Ellerson's "Swarm" defense, constantly pressuring Andy Schmidt and getting in the backfield to stop RB Dwayne Priest for short yardage. Josh McNary was extremely active, compiling tackles and constantly pressuring Schmidt. Sophomore defensive lineman [db]Chris Swain made his presence known with a timely third down sack, ending an Eastern Michgan drive.
With momentum squarely on Army's side at the half, the expectation was that Army would pick up where they left off as they started the third quarter. However, Eastern Michigan was not about to bow out. The defense came out flat, and the offense was riddles with penalties, uncharacteristic of Army Football. The Black Knights were penalized only 45 times in 2008, but saw the yellow flag fall against them 11 times for 82 yards, many of them coming at inopportune moments in the game.
Army went three-and-out to start the second half, and Eastern Michigan found themselves with a first and 10 at their own 35 on their first possession. The Eagles began to move the ball effectively against Army, with running back Dwane Priest leading the way. Priest carried the ball seven times for 48 yards on the drive, and EMU found themselves with a first and goal at the Army 10 yard line.
However, Army did not yield. On third and goal from the 5, Priest carried and was met by Andrew Rodriguez and junior linebacker Steve Anderson at the three-yard line. The Eagles would attempt a 21 yard field goal, but Joe Carithers missed wide right.
Army's offense continued to struggle throughout the third quarter. With 5:58 left and little spark with the option, Ellerson called on junior quarterback Chip Bowden to lead Army's offense. After two penalties and a called timeout by Army, Bowden ran left but was outrun by his pitch man and was stuffed for a loss of three. It was the last action Bowden would see in the game.
Following an Army punt, Eastern Michigan again took the ball with great field position at their own 48 yard line. As time ran down in the third quarter, Eastern Michigan was at the Army 22 and marching. It took only two plays into the 4th quarter for Eastern Michigan quarterback Andy Schmidt to find Jacory Stone deep in the right side of the end zone for a touchdown reception over Army cornerback Mario Hill. The Eagles were now within six points of Army, 13-7, and had the momentum.
On Army's opening possession of the fourth quarter, it again looked like the Black Knights would come up short. Facing a third and four on their own 27, Steelman looked to be stuffed for a loss, but got the pitch out to slotback Jameson Carter who showed great speed down the sideline on a 31 yard gain. Fullback Kingsley Ehie entered the game for Williams, and found a way to get the ball moving up the middle. Ehie carried the ball three times for the final 36 yards and put Army in the end zone for the third time in the game. Following a two-point conversion run by slotback Ian Smith off a Steelman toss, the Black Knights led the Eagles 27-7.
Army was back in control and, after stopping the Eagles on their next possession, had the ball back on their own 20. Facing third and 8 at the 22, Steelman again found Mealy on the pitch, and Mealy darted down the sideline for 72 yards, finally being pushed out of bounds at the Eastern Michigan five yard line. Ehie would finish the work on the next play with a five yard scoring run. Kicker Matt Campbell continued to struggle, missing his second extra point of the day. Army was now well in front, 27-7.
As the clock wore down, Eastern Michigan ran out of the shotgun and Army played conservative defense to not allow the big play and run down the clock. Schmidt would again find Stone for a big gain, putting Eastern Michigan on the Army one-yard line. Dwayne Priest would take the next carry into the end zone, and the Eagles were within 13 with 3:31 left to play.
Eastern Michigan attempted an onsides kick, but Army's Donovan Travis again came up big and covered the ball. Neither team would score again, although they traded turnovers, and Army let the clock run out, taking a knee at the Eastern Michigan 13.
The win was the first opening day road victory by Army in the history of its storied tradition, and Army head coach Rich Ellerson got his first win in his first game, Army showed vast improvement from the team that was run over by Navy last December, but left a lot of room for improvement.
Offensively, the Black Knights were hot and cold. However, as the game progressed, there were elements of the game that were very successful that show a good amount of optimism as the team matures week to week.
Defensively, the penetrating defensive line was a marked improvement. Army had six sacks in the game, two of them coming from senior Defensive tackle Victor Ugenyi.
Army also won the turnover battle, intercepting two Andy Schmidt passes, and pulling in a fumble recovery (Andrew Rodriguez) deep in EMU territory. Army lost one fumble late in the game on a Kinglsey Ehie run.
Penalties were a real thorn in the side for Army against Eastern Michigan. The Black Knights were penalized eleven times for 82 yards, including two critical pass interference calls against cornerback Mario Hill. The normally disciplined Army team will need to clean this up quickly heading into next week.
Army continues the 2009 campaign next Saturday at home against Duke. The Blue Devils fell to FCS Richmond today, 24-16.