WEST POINT, N.Y. -- So, for a second, let’s just say there’s a college football team practicing here that isn’t from the United States Military Academy.
It was just a run-of-the-mill 2-10 doormat in 2015, now 6-18 entering Year 3 of a total rebuild that continues with Friday night’s opener at Temple. Its players are cracking pads to the sound of Migos and Drake over loudspeakers on a practice field in late August, just like a hundred other teams are.
Because if it’s just another program and not Army, you’ll notice a team that was an interception away from beating the same UConn that spoiled Houston’s perfect season. You might start talking about how it lost at Penn State by just six points, thanks in large part to losing three fumbles, or how a dropped INT would’ve prevented a game-winning field goal by Wake Forest.
"We have a thing on defense this year we call ‘Seven Stops,'" senior linebacker Jeremy Timpf said. "If we could go back and redo seven stops, we could probably change all those [one-possession] games. Seven stops, and we could’ve changed the entire year."
If it’s just another program that ranks 17th nationally in returning production and was 1-7 in one-possession games last year, then .500 seems almost inevitable. But it isn’t. It’s Army, an institution as excellent in its history and tradition as it is unrivaled by the service academy stigma in modern football.
That’s where head coach Jeff Monken wants to diverge.
What if, instead of having every national conversation about Army football careen into admissions standards and a growing chasm of competitive disadvantage, we just talked about the football part?
"What does ‘a culture’ have to do with hanging on to the ball? That can be our culture," Monken said. "Hang on to the ball, and if someone else has it, by God, go get it. That’s just a matter of will and want-to and fundamentals, but that doesn’t have anything to do with a team last year or a team 10 years ago. We have complete control over that, so let’s control that."
Army finished 2015 with a minus-.92 turnover margin, tied for 113th nationally. If football logic prevents a sane comparison to anyone other than Navy, so be it: the Midshipmen were third nationally at plus-1.46. Good teams can try to force and avoid turnovers, but much of a turnover ratio comes down to luck.
"We’re not going to out-talent anyone. Our goal is to be more talented than our two rivals and then outwork everyone."
Monken isn’t interested in nuancing the complexities of competing as a service academy. They’re a matter of fact.
He’s of the Paul Johnson triple-option dynasty. Once a former Navy assistant with current Midshipmen head coach Ken Niumatalolo, Monken’s system beat the Gators in Gainesville with then-FCS Georgia Southern, all without completing a pass.
"I worked for Paul [Johnson] for 13 years, and he’s a great football coach, but what I admire most about him is that he does it his way," Monken said. "He hasn’t given into pressure from within or outside to do things differently. It’s what he knows works. He’s won enough games to where he doesn’t have to apologize to anyone. I guess I’m as influenced by him as I am anybody. And so we’re gonna do what we do and do what we’ve always done."
A quick review of the way it’s done in the flexbone tree: 168 career wins for Johnson, spanning from FCS titles to the Orange Bowl. He was 45-29 at Navy before handing the program to Niumatalolo, now 68-37 in Annapolis. Monken was Johnson’s longtime offensive coordinator and won 38 games at Georgia Southern before taking the job in West Point, ostensibly to replicate Niumatalolo, who’s disproved the idea that service academies can no longer compete.
That pedigree allows Monken to ignore Army’s decades of futility and point toward the tree’s steady success.
He just wants to fix turnovers, most of which came not from contact but poor decisions in passing and pitching. Monken commissioned an internal study in the offseason and found a whopping 10 percent of his team’s offensive plays resulted in a negative yardage.
"It took me a long time to learn the offense to a point where I know it in this detail," junior quarterback Ahmad Bradshaw said.
Bradshaw returns as the sort-of incumbent in a co-starting role with sophomore Chris Carter. That’s not uncommon in the option, but "the runner" Bradshaw will have to better command his passing.
"It’s really advanced this year to where I know not only the defenses and what they’re trying to stop, but also how they’re reacting to our adjustments," Bradshaw said. "We’ve broken it down in detail to where we now know why everything is being done."
But even if there’s mounting evidence that Army is on its way to finding success like Navy’s — albeit perhaps on a slower timeline — that won’t change the perception in or outside the sport of the Army brand.
But hey, this is Army. They can use that as a tactical advantage.
"We’ve played some really good teams, and we haven’t won many games," Timpf said. "It’s fair to think what you want of us. We know having played these teams, we feel like we’ve earned [respect] after games, but let them feel that. It might be good. It helps us surprise them."