Army coach’s optimistic message on college football season: ‘It can be done’

WEST POINT, N.Y. — In the late summer sun, Lusk Reservoir winked with possibility as it splayed out in the backdrop of Michie Stadium. On a radiant day cast from a United States Military Academy postcard, Army’s football team exuded one of the eternal powers of college football — hope.

On the first Saturday of the college football season, Army football left us dreaming that there could be a dozen more like it for the 76 FBS teams still attempting to navigate this season. Could the September sun give way to fall foliage and, perhaps, November snow spits?

There’s no place better positioned than Army, as the proceedings today confirmed with the Northeast’s first college football game of 2020. Amid the uncertainty, postponements and opt-outs that have dominated this most surreal summer, Army’s clinical execution transcended their timeless offense.

“I absolutely think it can be done,” Army coach Jeff Monken told Yahoo Sports on Saturday evening after his team’s 42-0 blowout of Middle Tennessee. “It takes discipline and vigilance on the part of everybody surrounding each one of these teams. Not just ours, each one of these teams. If we continue to do what we’re given guidance to do, I have every bit of confidence that we can make it through the year.”

Monken’s smile hid behind his mask, but his eyes smiled just as big as he reflected on the blowout win. Army scored on all six offensive possessions and added a 43-yard pick six by senior linebacker Jon Rhattigan. Army executed one majestic drive channeled straight from its DNA — a 19-play, 99-yard drive that gobbled up over 12 minutes. “I don’t know that any were really chunk plays,” he said. “It was just methodical.”

Army football players huddle near the logo on the field.
The Army Black Knights huddle before their game against the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders at Michie Stadium on Sept. 5, 2020 in West Point, New York. (Mike Lawrie/Getty Images)

And that’s the perfect metaphor for the slow, incremental progress the sport must take to turn September optimism into a fully functioning College Football Playoff. “To celebrate football in this setting, with all this country has been through, hopefully it just reminds us the future is bright,” Army athletic director Mike Buddie told Yahoo Sports.

While there have already been a handful of college football games this season, Army playing in the opening time slot of the sport’s first Saturday was the most visceral reminder of what this season could be.

Amid its gated bubble, Army showed us why it never wavered on playing football in 2020 — even if that meant a lone game with Navy in Philadelphia. With only 4,400 fans amid a stadium that holds 38,000 — all of which were the uniformed Corps of Cadets — the scene on Saturday reminded us both of the wondrous familiar rhythms and stark differences that will define this 2020 season.

Monken admitted he looked around a few times during timeouts and said to himself, “Where is everybody?”

What was different? He could hear MTSU quarterback Asher O’Hara clap when he wanted to receive the ball, a sound he’d never hear under normal crowd noise circumstances. He also said that the Army sideline was able to make verbal adjustments, both moving receivers on offense who’d lined up wrong and first-year defensive coordinator Nate Woody screaming in entire new play calls.

“He yelled, ‘Hey! Hey! Hey! Hold on!’” Monken said. “And they’d look over and he’d give them a new call. You’re not able to do that in normal situations.”

These aren’t normal times, as if you needed a reminder. This entire summer has felt like a deluge of bad news and pessimism around the sport. But these early games have shown flashes of progress buried under opt-outs, postponements and games being scratched off the schedule as if in chalk. (This game wasn’t scheduled until Aug. 10, which may excuse why Middle Tennessee viewed Army’s option like it was a menu written in Mandarin.)

“There was part of me that was uncertain we were going to get to this day,” Monken admitted. He added: “It was a lot of fun. I had as much fun coaching today as I’ve had in a long time.”

But there was so much that felt familiar on Saturday that it felt like football serving as comfort food, served one option pitch at a time. (Army ran 62 times for 342 yards, with no single runner over 100.) There were cadets tiring from doing celebratory push-ups after every score — 147 in total. There were cannon blasts celebrating each score and the soothing sound of pads popping amid the palpable excitement of sidelines on third-down conversions.

Chase Cunningham takes a snap against Army.
Middle Tennessee's Chase Cunningham takes a snap in the second half against the Army Black Knights at Michie Stadium on Sept. 5, 2020 in West Point, New York. (Mike Lawrie/Getty Images)

But there was so much that felt different, like a football game playing out on a movie set. Pulling on the base, I was greeted by the strangest feeling I’ve had arriving at a game in my nearly two decades covering national college football — emptiness. Driving through Thayer Gate, I couldn’t find anyone — not a lone person — to ask directions to Lot J. It was all just weird, completely antithetical to any gameday experience. Just no humans around.

But watching football was a glorious sight, and in a very 2020 way there were two people — outside his players — who Monken singled out after the game. He credited Woody, the defensive coordinator, for a flawless debut that came without the benefit of spring ball.

Monken also credited associate athletic director Bob Beretta, who estimated he’d put together 200 different models to land the 12 games Army played. At one point this summer, Army was down to only three games.

Army may end up playing more regular-season games than anyone, as few have even scheduled 12. But that’s also the reality of the fickle times. “I anticipate that there’ll be a change somewhere along the way,” Beretta said. “We’re going to be prepared to pivot on a Monday for a game on a Saturday, we’re going to be nimble.”

On the first Saturday of the season, a slate on paper finally played out in front of us. Monken expects many more like it.

“Today should send a message of optimism,” he said. “Every game that’s played should give everyone more confidence that we can do things that we want to do. ... And really, it comes down to each individual person. They have to wash their hands and wear a mask and be physically distant from people. And it can be done. I hope in general we don’t become complacent because we see this is working and we let our guard down.”

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