WEST POINT, N.Y. - The Army football team capped its spring preparations on Wednesday night with the annual Black/Gold Game at Michie Stadium. In a controlled scrimmage with a modified scoring system, the Black Knights' offense came away with a 35-16 win over the defense.
The scrimmage started with a set of third-down situations. The offense was awarded one point on a conversion, while the defense earned a point for a stop. In 19 plays, the offense finished with an 11-8 advantage. The ball was then moved inside the 20-yard line to test both units' effectiveness in the red zone. The Army offense scored four times in five possessions, including three touchdowns, for a total of 24 points, while the defense earned eight points by forcing two field goal attempts.
"It was exciting, especially getting the offensive line out there," captain Steven Erzinger said. "I know offensively, they're excited about that group, and they should be. They're doing a great job. Defensively, we're young with a lot of new faces out there, but they're doing a good job. They're talking, they're communicating and doing all the right things. We had a little bit of an assignment mix up on a couple things today, but they're flying around to the ball and that's all you can ask."
The offensive line was a high point in Wednesday's scrimmage, helping pave the way for three rushing touchdowns during the red-zone portion of the workout.
Sophomore Dan McGue scored twice with the first-team offense, bulling his way in from five yards out on the first possession and adding a 3-yard scoring run on the second drive. Sophomore Julian Crocckett added a three-yard touchdown run later in the workout. The first team front line consisted of Brad Kelly, Joe Bailey, Will Wilson, Matthew Villanti and Derek Bisgard. The lone returning starter, Frank Allen, sat out the scrimmage with an injury.
"Obviously, we have some new guys in there, but those newcomers aren't all that new," said head coach Rich Ellerson. "Those are guys that have been in those positions in a backup role. They stepped in and stepped up and were really productive. I was pleased with that transition. I was surprisingly pleased with the play at center. Will Wilson and Michael Kime did a nice job there. I thought we'd be serviceable there, but not maybe as far along as we are. That was encouraging."
While Allen was the lone offensive lineman missing, the defensive front was hampered all spring by injuries. Interior line candidate A.J. Mackey did not participate on Wednesday, while Christopher Swain, a reserve last season, was dressed for the scrimmage but missed the majority of Army's 13 spring practices. Finding players to fill the role vacated by stopper Mike Gann will be a key to Army's defensive success in 2011.
"I have still have some concerns," Ellerson said after the scrimmage. "We didn't answer the questions we have about the interior defensive line. That we didn't get resolved because those guys that quite frankly we were looking at to fill those gaps didn't practice. They got themselves nicked up early so that's something to still be determined. It's something that's going to be a concern going into training camp."
The injuries allowed several young players to see time along the defensive front. Erzinger believes the extra repetitions has already reaped benefits and will continue to do so heading into fall camp.
"Up front, a lot of the young guys were like, 'What is happening?" at the beginning, but now they are saying, 'I know what is going on, and I'm going to go out there and make a play for you guys,'" Erzinger said. "It really helps out the linebackers going to ball, so that's nice."
While the front portion of the defense has some question marks, the Black Knights' re-built back line has started to answer the questions posed by the losses of last year's starters, Donovan Travis and Donnie Dixon. Sophomores Tyler Dickson and Thomas Holloway both showed they are ready to step into those roles.
"I think we got a lot of good looks on some guys," Erzinger said. "Safety was a big concern. We lost Donovan Travis who was like a general out there for us. Safety is a huge positon to fill, but both those guys did a great job. I'm not sure how the coaches are looking at it, but from my perspective, I'm comfortable with both those guys back there.
The coaches seemed to agree with Erzinger's assessment.
"I am encouraged by that second row on defense," Ellerson said. "We've got some gifted guys back there. The physically maturity is going to be a race. Athletically, we'll have a chance."
The theme of this year's spring practice was talent evaluation. With such a productive senior class from the 2010 Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl championship team lost to graduation, a number of youngsters were put in positions to show off their ability. Ellerson was pleased with the progress the youngsters made in such a short time.
"We're only away for six or seven weeks away from the end of the season, and it looks like some of those guys have really taken a step forward," he said. They step back (off the field), they train, they lift, but they're playing that movie in their head over and over. Then they step back out here and they look like they're so much further ahead. They're more mature and their reactions are so much better. Defensively, this spring we were very simple and kind of generic in our adjustments because there was a bit of discovery phase. We had to find our strengths and weaknesses before we start to maybe tailor things to his personnel set. That's something we'll be scratching our heads about coming out of spring ball to make some of those calls. I think the defense will adjust to the personnel set we have, but it's going to be our defense."
The Black Knights will take all of next week off for spring break before returning for two final "walk-thru" practices on March 21 and 22. Those days will be used to install Army's offseason workout program.
The 2011 season kicks off on Sept. 3 at Northern Illinois. The Black Knights make their Michie Stadium debut on Saturday, Sept. 10 versus San Diego State. Season tickets are on sale at the Army Athletics Ticket office, by phone at 1-877-TIX-ARMY and on-line by clicking here.