For anyone who still doubts that the option offense is college football's great equalizer—the savior of any down-on-its-luck program short on size, speed and talent—it is time to reconsider. After dominating Kent State 45--28 on the road last Saturday, Army, a team that hadn't won more than four games in one season in 13 years before it switched to the triple option in 2009, is now 6--4 and bowl eligible for the first time since 1996. For a program that was as beleaguered as any in recent memory, the option's proof is in the postseason.
Facing a Golden Flashes defense that entered the game ranked No. 1 in the country against the run, Army ran for 233 yards and held the ball for more than 38 minutes. "We're not going to shy away from the run—it defines us," says sophomore quarterback Trent Steelman.
The man responsible for that attitude is second-year coach Rich Ellerson, who has deep roots at West Point—his father and two brothers are academy graduates—as well as in the triple option. He was the defensive coordinator at Hawaii in the late 1980s, when current Georgia Tech coach (and triple-option guru) Paul Johnson was the offensive coordinator.
Previous Army coaches lobbied to get their players exempted from certain academy requirements. Ellerson wants none of that; for the first time in years, the Black Knights' freshmen left fall camp for one day in August to make the 13-mile plebe hike at the end of Beast Barracks. "We are not going to win in spite of West Point," says Ellerson. "We are going to win because of it."
Few Army players fit better in Ellerson's system than Jared Hassin (858 rushing yards, nine TDs), a 6'3", 235-pound sophomore fullback with surprising speed. Hassin dreamed of attending West Point (his father and sister are both grads) but, wanting to make his own path, signed with Air Force in 2008. Unhappy in Colorado Springs, Hassin left the Falcons after a week and transferred to West Point. After sitting out '09 due to NCAA transfer rules, Hassin broke into the lineup this year and has given the Black Knights a much-needed home run threat.
There's only the game against Notre Dame at Yankee Stadium on Saturday before Army's annual meeting with Navy on Dec. 11. Where the Black Knights play in the postseason—they have no primary bowl tie-in—is less important than where they go afterward. "This win was a milepost for us," Ellerson says of beating Kent State, "not a destination."
Now on SI.com
Cory McCartney ranks the top 10 Heisman candidates every Monday at SI.com/cfb