Rich Ellerson likes to tell a story that best describes the intrinsic value of how the United States Military Academy views the Navy game from the hills of West Point.
During thanksgiving he sponsored a Slovenian cadet, a foreign cadet, and his family came to visit the U.S. for maybe the second time ever. Only the father spoke a bit of English.
"They don't know football from third base,'' Ellerson quips. "They drive through the Thayer Gate; by the time they get to our house they don't know anything about football, but they know we better beat Navy. All they had to do was drive down the street and look at the front of everybody's house. They're not sure what the heck that means, but they know we better beat Navy.''
Ellerson had been involved in rivalry games before arriving at Army last year. For eight seasons he was on the staff at the University of Arizona, which of course goes at it every year with in-state opponent Arizona State.
That is the same genre of an Ohio State-Michigan showdown, or Texas-Oklahoma, Auburn-Alabama or Cal-Stanford.
But really, none compare to what's taken place the last 110 times Army has faced Navy. "What's so different is, the beautiful thing about this rivalry is that it is easily the most fiercely contested game between the white lines. But to the two institutions, from top to bottom, share a mutual respect. And so that is absent in some of the other great rivalries you see around the civilian world,'' Ellerson said. "When you hear some of the language that surrounds the game, it's frankly something you would not want to subject young children to.
"This, on the other hand, is something you absolutely want to put on a pedestal. This is what every rivalry should aspire to. I think the uniqueness of these young men, the path they've chosen and what's in their immediate futures, and the challenges of the mission that they are going to share and how dependent they're going to be on one another - obviously that puts this contest in an entirely unique context.''
The Black Knights will be out to snap an eight-year losing streak to their Annapolis adversaries, and while that is certainly possible, Ellerson knows it is only so if his team plays with focus.
During the past three weeks he and his team have tried to do just that. "We did some soul searching, as to where we are and where we need to be'' said Ellerson, who received a two-year contract extension Tuesday (good through 2015). "We recognized that we have to do something different in our preparation.''
Not so much in general, but as it relates to "big'' games.
There have been only two of them this season, as defined by those played with national attention: Air Force and Notre Dame. Both were losses, and not even close.
Among the factors, at least intangibly, is dealing with success. Having gone 14 seasons without playing winning football, this is a relatively foreign concept to this program.
Suddenly the Black Knights are 6-5 and will play past the Navy game for the first time since 1996 when they play in a bowl game - Dec. 30 vs. SMU in the Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl. "There are challenges associated with success just like there are challenges with (failure). We fought through one and now we have to deal with the other. It's a lot more fun to deal with this but it's no less difficult, and in some ways insidious. We have to focus on what's happening between the white lines.''
"We don't want eight guys playing one defense and five guys playing another defense,'' he said. "We don't want seven guys going this way and five going that way.
"We're going to have to play Army football,'' he emphasized. "Precise, disciplined, and make good reads. We know what we're looking at. It's going to come down to making fine adjustments offensively and defensively, and executing. Don't do things that will hurt you. Don't make mistakes. Don't stop yourself, make them stop you.
"It's about accountability, and I'm not talking physical mistakes. I'm talking about lapses; lack of focus. And you just can't talk about it. 'My bad' ain't good enough,'' he said about the hip expression of self-apology. 'My bad' doesn't help anybody.''
Nothing has helped Army the past few years, and the statistics are frightfully telling.
In the last three Navy games Army has been outscored 89-6. During this eight-year void, Army has been outscored 291-74. In the last three games Army has scored no touchdowns. Zero. Just two field goals.
In last year's game (17-3), Navy quarterback Ricky Dobbs carried the ball 33 times for 113 yards and one TD. He passed only seven times.
This year he has passed for just under 1,200 yards and ran for another 929. He has 10 touchdowns passing and run for 13.
Navy, 8-3, is on a three-game win streak, having scored 35, 38 and 76 points in those last three. The Midshipmen have wins over Notre Dame and SMU. Two of their losses, to Maryland and Duke, were by a field goal.
They lost to Air Force 14-6. "They're maturing and growing in their system,'' Ellerson said of the Mids. "They'll do some things different, some wrinkles if you will. They're better in those systems, but they're essentially the same offensively and defensively.
"Dobbs is a special guy,'' he added. "He has the ability to make a play with reads, his legs and his arm. We need Dobbs to not have a great game.''
Army needs to have a great game if it's going to end all the Navy nonsense, and would do so on the greatest stage in college football's regular season.
Ellerson said that running backs Brian Cobbs and Malcolm Brown are ready to go. Cobbs missed the second half of the Notre Dame game with a concussion, and Brown has been out with a collarbone injury suffered in the Rutgers game. Said Ellerson, "I think we have a chance to be as healthy and fresh as we've been all year.''
Kickoff is at 2:40 p.m. at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia. The game will be televised nationally on CBS-TV.
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