In keeping with service academy tradition, the Army football team leads the nation in rushing at 350.9 yards per game. So potent has the Black Knights’ option attack been that with one game to play, they already have established a school record with 3,860 rushing yards.
If Army gains 140 yards Saturday against Navy, it will become the first team in West Point history to eclipse 4,000 yards, no small feat considering the Black Knights have led the country in rushing seven times.
This season, though, they’ve been able to execute the triple option at a record pace despite eight starting lineups along the offensive line and multiple quarterbacks, including a different starter in each of the last three games.
In Army’s most recent game against Temple on Nov. 19, regular starting quarterback Trent Steelman came back after missing three weeks because of a left ankle injury. But the junior who owns the school record with 32 consecutive starts lasted just two plays, this time hurting his right knee.
Steelman leads Army with 11 rushing touchdowns and is second with 583 rushing yards. He has passed for just 347 yards, although his efficiency rating is 132.69.
“Obviously not having Trent for about half the year has been a challenge for us,” said Rich Ellerson, Army’s third-year coach. “But you know that can happen. It happens at a lot of places, and certainly a guy who touches the ball on every play and a guy that’s experienced just as college football player much less an option quarterback as Trent, you can’t overstate his absence.”
The week before Steelman’s latest injury, freshman Angel Santiago started against Rutgers and amassed 72 yards on 30 carries. He also completed 6 of 15 passes for 77 yards in the 27-12 loss at Yankee Stadium.
The Black Knights’ other starter has been senior Max Jenkins, who filled in for Steelman when he first was hurt on Oct. 22 against Vanderbilt. Jenkins ran for two touchdowns and threw another in a 55-0 victory over Fordham on Oct. 29 in which Santiago also played, and a week later, he helped Army run for 340 yards, including 286 by halftime, in a 24-14 loss to Air Force.
“Fortunately with this offense, I think that it doesn’t really matter who’s in at what time,” said Jenkins, who has 119 rushing yards with four touchdowns, tied for third-most on the team. “Trent’s the starter, and my goal as a backup is just to be ready when I need to be called. Luckily our practices are oriented with two and three depth positions, so we have multiple huddles going back and forth at a rapid pace. Everybody gets a bunch of reps.”
Of course, the preference is for Steelman to be starting on Saturday at FedEx Field, where Army (3-8) seeks to end a nine-game losing streak to its fiercest rival. None of those games has been particularly competitive either, including last year’s 31-17 loss at Lincoln Financial Field.
Steelman was Army’s most productive offensive player in that game, throwing for a pair of touchdowns and leading the team with 74 yards on 19 carries. In his first game against Navy, Steelman ran for just 16 yards on 11 carries and threw an interception in a 17-3 loss.
Steelman has been able to go through several practices since the beginning of this month, and he appears on course to start against the Midshipmen. Ellerson also indicated he was planning to protect Steelman during practice in order to increase his chances of playing.
Steelman “obviously is going to be more experienced,” said Navy defensive end Jabaree Tuani, a senior. “But also I know whoever steps into the situation in that game is going to come out there and play as hard as he can, so regardless of whoever’s in there at any position, we’re coming to play a full game.”