By Jim Benton for www.armedforcesbowl.clom
Dallas, Texas, December 30, 2010 – Army’s wins and losses in recent seasons have many times been determined by the turnover margin.
On Thursday before a Gerald J. Ford Stadium record crowd of 36,742, the Black Knights used three first half turnovers to provide the spark for a 16-14 triumph over SMU in the Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl.
The victory pushed Army’s final record to 7-6, the first winning season in 14 years. SMU wound up with a 7-7 ledger.
Both Army coach Rich Ellerson and SMU mentor June Jones admitted turnovers were the key to the game as the Black Knights jumped to a 16-0 first half lead.
"Turnovers are a part of our defense and part of our identity," nose guard Mike Gann said. "We work on getting them every day. And they don’t just come, we go after them. If you see us before the game, what we do for warm-ups is a turnover drill. Turnovers change ball games."
On SMU’s third play of the game, quarterback Kyle Pardon fumbled and senior defensive end Josh McNary picked up the loose ball and ran 55 yards for a touchdown to give Army a lead it never relinquished.
"I was switched into the pass rush mode," McNary said. "I was a couple steps away from him (Pardon) when the ball popped out. I just happened to be there.
"I’ve never been in the end zone in my college career. If you noticed I was looking back and forth. I looked behind me about three different times.
"It was a huge turnover. If you look at the margin we won by, it wasn’t much. That touchdown determined the outcome of the game."
Senior Mike linebacker Stephen Anderson, voted Army’s Most Outstanding Player with his game-high 14 tackles, and sophomore defensive back Josh Jackson had first half interceptions to stall SMU drives.
"One of our goals this season was to lead the nation in turnover margin," Anderson said. "We needed five today to lead the nation in turnovers and that’s not knowing how other teams do in plus-minus margin.
"Getting three but not giving up any is just as pivotal as getting five and giving up two. We pride ourselves in that. We love taking the ball away."
Army entered the game tied for seventh nationally in turnover margin at +1.08 a game. Since the start of the 2006 season, the Black Knights are 14-4 when winning the turnover battle.
Despite holding the edge in the turnover battle and benefitting from two missed SMU field goals, Army need two big offensive plays to secure the win.
After SMU’s Matt Szymanski missed a 47-yard field goal with 4:05 remaining in the game with Army nursing a 16-14 lead, the Black Knights offense ran out the clock thanks to two big third down plays.
On third-and-five from their own 35-yard line with 3:20 showing on the clock, quarterback Trent Steelman ran for six yards and a first down.
Then facing a third-and-four from the Army 47-yard line with 1:18 remaining, Steelman connected with Davyd Brooks with a 22-yard pass to seal the victory.
"It felt great," Brooks said. "I knew what I had to do."
WORK JUST STARTING – Ellerson answered question after question about Army’s turnaround season that produced the Academy’s first bowl appearance in 14 years.
But he was quick to remind the media that, "There’s another trophy we need to get to work on, that’s the Commander In Chief Trophy."
That trophy goes to the winner of the yearly games between Army, Navy and Air Force.
RECORD SETTING – Army set two Armed Forces Bowl records. McNary’s 55-yard return with a fumble for a touchdown in the first quarter eclipsed the 27-yard return by Houston’s Brendan Pahulu in 2005.
And, Josh Jackson’s 38-yard interception return was the longest in bowl history, six yards longer than Willie Smith’s 32-yard return for Marshall in 2004.
ARMY NOTES – The Black Knights’ 7-6 record gave the Academy its most wins and first season above the .500 marks since the 1966 team compiled a 10-2 record. Ellerson is the first Army coach to win 12 games in their first two seasons (12-13) since Tom Cahill won 16 games in 1966 (8-2) and 1967 (8-2). The Armed Forces Bowl triumph ended a nine-game losing streak for Army in the month of December. The Black Knights are now 3-2 all time in bowl games. Army wound up the season with 346 points, the third-highest total in Academy history. Fullback Jared Hassin led Army with 82 yards rushing to finish the year with 1,013 yards to become on the second sophomore (Mike Mayweather) in school history to gain over 1,000 yards in a season. Junior Alex Carlton’s second PAT attempt was blocked which snapped his streak of 54 consecutive successful PATs.
Jim Benton (firstname.lastname@example.org), a sportswriter for the Rocky Mountain News in Denver for 41 years, will be covering his fourth-straight Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl. He started as a high school beat writer four decades ago, Since then, he has covered a variety of sports including college football, basketball and hockey, professional hockey, football, baseball and basketball, tennis, golf, bowling, soccer, horse racing and NASCAR. Benton is a Denver native and a graduate of the University of Denver.