WEST POINT – Take a breath. Take a deep breath. Feel OK? Depends upon what you’re used to.
West Point is located at a rather tranquil 862 feet above sea level. Tack on almost an additional 1¼ miles and you’re in Fort Collins, Colorado, where the Black Knights will play Air Force Saturday. Those deep breaths might be a little tougher to come by, huh coach?
“It is not a factor as far as we see it, and we don’t need oxygen masks,” Rich Ellerson said. “We are a well-conditioned team that does a lot of anaerobic activity. You put in those timeouts, and we will be fine. Air Force’s football team is the challenge, not the elevation.”
Perhaps, but they still only give you three timeouts per half, so there best be a lot of runs out of bounds or a few incomplete passes or TV timeouts for the players to catch their collective breath.
“I’ve been there a few times, and it’s really not that high,” Ellerson said.
In recent years it seems the games could have been played in Death Valley or the Alps, but the Falcons would have still had the upper hand. Thanks to another in a series of stellar performances by quarterback Trent Steelman, Army won its home game against Air Force last season 41-21. Prior to that, Army won only one game against Air Force since 1996. That was an Army home game; Air Force has won 16 of its last 17 home games against the Black Knights.
“It gets uncomfortable, but it’s not a distraction,” Ellerson said of the altitude. “It’s like having the student band right behind your bench. I’d put it on the same plane.”
Air Force is one of the three service academies, and a victory would give Army a shot at the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy, awarded annually to the team that wins the round-robin series among the three teams. If the Black Knights win, this year’s trophy winner will be decided Dec. 14 at the Army – Navy game.
“It’s a big deal,” Ellerson said. “It’s not Navy, but it’s ‘Beat Air Force.’ They have two opponents in different categories; they think about them differently. There are some things that are similar. Maybe it’s different to me, but [the players] have a different opinion of these two rivals, but they are rivals.”
And the players don’t hesitate to give their input.
“This is one of those weeks that everyone is vested and has something to say,” Ellerson said. “I think it’s all well-meaning, but there are a lot of people who want to talk to you about Air Force and playing at Air Force. It’s all about the importance of the moment and taking advantage of the opportunities. Our guys get all that, and they have since August, so we are just keeping our heads down trying to get ready to play a difficult offense and defense. We are busy trying to get the nuts and the bolts of the game, and we just have to manage the voice internally. A lot of people have something to say and that’s the nature of the business. When you get into big games, it doesn’t matter where you are you tend to get a little bit of hell and we just tell our guys not to focus on that.”
Army has split its last four games, and is coming off a bye week after getting hammered by Temple 33-14 two weeks ago. Ellerson admitted to confusion as to how his team could gave entered that game so flat.
“I saw some legs out there that I hadn’t seen in awhile,” he said. “At the end of the day the idea is to bust your ass to win each snap. We do that, we have a chance. Clearly we weren’t particularly well focused.”
As such, the emphasis since then appears to have been an attempt to reinfuse confidence. Having been given three days off from practice last week surely helped the physical recovery; the mental remains to be seen.
“At some level there might be a greater level of confidence,” he said. “That was our challenge coming out of the bye week. Our guys have confidence, but they know how fragile it is. There’s reasons to be concerned. We had our team meeting coming out of the bye week. If you want this thing to be special, you have to practice harder. We’re a long way from having things happen exactly the way we want to.”
But, as always whenever playing one of the academies, there’s that tightrope walk between preparation and overzealousness.
“I don’t know if you can minimize it,” Ellerson said. “There is always going to be some of that in the background. You just have to use it and manage it. Like I said, we are going to be intense. What we need not to be is coming out of our shoes, emotional, passionate because you play this game with great intensity and great focus; emotion plays into that but it has to be used as a tool not to be played by it. It’s not their first rodeo. They have been there before.”