Rich Ellerson and June Jones have done outstanding jobs turning around downtrodden programs at Army and Southern Methodist, respectively.
Only one, however, will be able to boast a winning record this season.
While Army has qualified for its first bowl game in 14 years, it has the unenviable task of facing SMU in its home stadium Thursday in the Armed Forces Bowl.
Ellerson was hired by Army in December 2008 to turn around a program that had endured three straight 3-9 seasons and was 30-108 since its last winning campaign in 1996.
The team made strides in its inaugural season under Ellerson, going 5-7. Army (6-6) won three of its first four games this season and became bowl eligible with a 45-28 victory over Kent State on Nov. 13.
Ellerson, given a two-year contract extension Dec. 7, needs a win in this game to become the first Army coach to total 12 wins in his first two seasons since Tom Cahill recorded 16 over 20 games in 1966 and 1967.
Army could’ve given Ellerson his 12th win against Navy on Dec. 11, but the Black Knights fell behind by 17 at halftime en route to a 31-17 loss, their ninth straight to their archrivals. Trent Steelman threw for 128 yards and two touchdowns, but his fumble late in the first half proved costly.
“What we’re going to talk about as a football team is that we’ve played just well enough to give ourselves a chance to bring winning football back,” Ellerson told the school’s official website. “We get one more opportunity. We sit here at 6-6. I know we want to talk about what just happened, and I’ve got to somehow, some way, get everybody focused on that.”
Army will try to win its first postseason game since the 1985 Peach Bowl, but will have to do it on SMU’s home field. This bowl game is usually played at TCU’s Amon G. Carter Stadium in Fort Worth, but the school is renovating the facility, moving the contest to Gerald J. Ford Stadium in Dallas for this season only.
The Black Knights have relied almost solely on the run all season, using the triple option to rank 10th nationally in rushing offense (256.0 ypg). Army, however, has been held under 230 yards on the ground in each of the last two games after reaching that mark in the first 10 games.
“The triple option is a very difficult offense to prepare for,” Jones said. “I’m glad we have time to prepare for it. We also played against it at Navy. This will be a better situation for us. I know Rich very well. He will have some new little wrinkles and some little things by the time we get to game day.”
Fullback Jared Hassin has gotten the bulk of the carries for Army, totaling 931 yards and nine touchdowns on 173 rushes. Hassin also has averaged 51.6 yards the last three games after going over 100 yards in his four previous contests.
Steelman is the team’s second-leading rusher with 694 yards and 11 touchdowns. He has passed for fewer than 100 yards in eight of 12 games, throwing seven scores and three interceptions.
Army’s defensive anchor is senior end Josh McNary, the school’s all-time leader in sacks. He’s part of a unit that is 26th in the nation, allowing 332.6 yards per game.
Jones has engineered quite a turnaround at SMU (7-6), guiding the Mustangs to 13 wins over the last two seasons after a 1-11 finish during his first year in 2008.
SMU ended a 25-year bowl drought in 2009 and is headed to bowl games in consecutive seasons for the first time since 1983 and 1984.
A 6-2 record earned Jones’ team a spot in the Conference USA championship game, but the Mustangs fell short of their first league crown since 1984 with a 17-7 loss to Central Florida on Dec. 4.
SMU prefers to throw and with quarterback Kyle Padron it’s not hard to see why. Padron ranks among the national leaders with 3,526 passing yards and 29 touchdowns, including 13 to Aldrick Robinson, who has 60 receptions for 1,225 yards.
Cole Beasley leads the team with 84 catches for 1,036 yards and six TDs.
When the Mustangs keep the ball on the ground, Zach Line usually gets the call. Line averaged 6.1 yards-per-carry on his way to 1,391 yards, the third-best total in school history behind Eric Dickerson’s 1981 and 1982 seasons.
Army has won both previous meetings with SMU, but this is the first matchup since 1967.
Army (6-6) vs. SMU (7-6), Noon Thursday on ESPN
- Series Record: Army leads 2-0.
- Last Meeting: Army 24-6, 1967.
What’s at Stake
Army is trying to finish with a winning record for the first time since 1996, which was also the last time the Black Knights played in a bowl. A year after SMU ended a 25-year bowl drought with a trip to Hawaii, the Mustangs play a bowl on their home field. They are trying for consecutive seasons with at least eight wins for the first time since 1983-84.
With its triple-option offense, Army picks up most of its yards on the ground. SMU prefers moving the ball through the air. The Black Knights have cracked 3,000 yards rushing for the first time since 1998 and have 33 rushing TDs, 20 more than last year. SMU is 22nd nationally with 274 yards passing a game with QB Kyle Padron throwing 29 TDs and only 12 interceptions. Army allows only 191 yards passing a game, 24th nationally.
Players to Watch
Army: FB Jared Hassin, who began his career at Air Force and then had to sit out last season due to NCAA transfer rules, has a team-high 931 yards rushing. He also has nine touchdowns and is a crushing blocker.
SMU: WR Aldrick Robinson has TD catches in seven consecutive games, and his 13 this season are a school record. The senior is the only SMU player ever with two 1,000-yard receiving seasons and has been involved in two of the three longest pass plays in school history (96 and 94 yards).
Facts and Figures
The Armed Forces Bowl is usually played on the TCU campus in Fort Worth, but Amon G. Carter Stadium is undergoing a $105 million modernizing renovation. It was announced before the season that this year’s bowl would be played at SMU, long before it was known the Mustangs would be in the game. … Army has lost 22 games in a row against teams with a winning record since 2005. … SMU has only four seniors among its 22 starters. … Mustangs sophomore LB Ja’Gared Davis has nine sacks, third in Conference USA.
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