Nobody ever complained that Army couldn't dress up a football game. Where else does a decorated veteran, so moved by the unbeaten start of his alma mater, drop by a midweek practice and bequeath his Congressional Medal of Honor to the entire team? Where else does a national hero commanding a reported $60,000 a pop on the rubber-chicken circuit stop in the afternoon before a game to deliver a little fire and brimstone, pro bono?
Yes, the inspirational trappings have always come easy to Army. Producing football games to match has proved more taxing. Eight years have passed since the Cadets last appeared in a bowl, and only a few years have gone by since the cognoscenti were debating whether Army—and Navy, too—belonged in Division I-A. But such talk is a remote memory these days. Navy is a respectable 6-2 this season, and last Saturday, Army defeated Air Force 23-7 to improve its record to 9-0. "I would hope people will respect us now," said inside linebacker Ben Kotwica after the game. "Though I'm not sure everyone will."
Kotwica was not being a killjoy. He was merely echoing the keynote that he and his teammates have sounded all season. Despite being only one of five unbeaten teams in Division I-A, the Cadets have been regularly flayed for their downy-soft schedule, which has included two I-AA teams, Yale and Lafayette, and just three opponents with winning records. Only after the win over the Falcons, who three weeks eailier had defeated Notre Dame in South Bend, did the pollsters finally deem Army fit for a Top 25 ranking; the Cadets are now No. 22. But they could finish the regular season undefeated—games against Syracuse and Navy remain—and still be denied a bid to a major bowl.
If the thought of such slights were not enough to stoke Army's fire, two events leading to last Saturday's game were certain to keep the embers smoldering. Last Thursday, Vietnam war hero Paul (Buddy) Bucha, West Point '65, delivered a five-minute speech to the team. In 1967 Bucha, then a second lieutenant in the 101st Airborne Division, received the Congressional Medal of Honor after, among other acts of bravery, crawling through a hail of gunfire to destroy a bunker with a grenade. "When you have your backs against the wall, I want you to look at this," he told the Cadets. He then pulled from his pocket the medal, handed it to coach Bob Sutton and asked that Sutton act as its caretaker until the end of the season.
The following afternoon Norman Schwarzkopf, the retired Desert Storm general and now a banquet-circuit favorite, gave the team a 15-minute pep talk filled with gulf war analogies. "You're fighting a war," he said. "You're here to win, and nothing else is acceptable."
For the Cadets, Schwarzkopf's words were especially rousing. "In the past we had these generals, these big politicians, come in and say, 'Hey, as long as you represent the Army and don't quit, it's O.K.,' " tight end Ron Leshinski said after Saturday's game. "Essentially they were saying it's O.K. if you lose. And that's bull. Finally, we had somebody say, 'Go out there and kick their asses.' After listening to the general, the team wanted to play right there and then."
Emotion can carry a team only so far. The Cadets owe most of their success to impeccable execution on the field. Their wishbone attack has produced a nation-leading 353.8 rushing yards per game, even after a relatively modest 260 against Air Force, with only 11 turnovers. Few teams are more effective at physically wearing down the opposition. Indeed, Army's offense takes an almost sadistic pleasure in grinding out four or five yards per play. "Don't get me wrong," says quarterback Ronnie McAda. "I'd love to see more 60-yard plays. But those four-and five-yarders add up. You should see the look in the eyes of some of these defenses by late in the third quarter."
But then the Cadets' efficiency at running the wishbone comes as little surprise, given that service academies have deftly run the offense for years. What's more surprising is Army's defensive success—or, more specifically, its success while using a system that, because it relies on speed, doesn't seem well suited to the Cadets. During the 1993 season Sutton was alarmed at the ease with which opposing offenses were moving the ball downfield, so he decided to change to a more aggressive, attacking scheme. In the spring of 1994 he and his defensive staff visited Arizona to learn the Wildcats' double-eagle flex, or Desert Swarm defense, which Arizona had employed to limit opponents to 47.6 rushing yards per game in 1992 and '93. The Cadets recruited swifter athletes and have used the double-eagle flex with great effectiveness, surrendering 604 yards rushing all season. "I wouldn't want to play against our defense," fullback Joe Hewitt said after the win over the Falcons. "Look at the way it shut their quarterback down today."
To say the Cadets' defense merely shut down Air Force senior quarterback Beau Morgan is an understatement. Entering the game, Morgan, who this weekend will probably become the first player to both pass and run for 1,000 yards in consecutive years, was the nation's fourth-leading rusher, with 1,185 yards. The Cadets held him to six yards on the ground and held the entire Air Force offense, which entered the game as the nation's No. 2 rushing team (353.9 yards per game), to just 69.
But then Army had been anything but intimidated by the prospect of facing the Falcons and their hotshot quarterback. "Who's Morgan?" queried Hewitt before the game. It was the type of subtle dissing that Air Force, winner of seven straight against the Cadets before Saturday, has traditionally directed toward Army. But forgive Hewitt his irreverence. Last year, his mother, Shirley, retired from her position as a medical administrator in the Air Force. "It was a pretty bitter experience for her," says Joe. "She felt she was treated terribly by some people she worked for." Much of that bitterness apparently lingers. On Friday night Shirley fed her son a bit of Schwarzkopfian invective. "She basically told me to go out there and knock the crap out of somebody," recalls Joe. "And then stand over the guy and tell him, 'This one was from my mom.' "