Academies should be high in our thoughts

Focus is a big thing when it comes to football, as well as life. If you lose it on the gridiron, chances are you’re going to lose on the scoreboard.

Last weekend, now-No. 10 Michigan lost its focus, but in the end, the Wolverines got lucky and improved their record to 2-0.

Almost everybody quickly zeroed in, both fans and the media, on Michigan’s surprisingly poor performance. And rightly so, as the Wolverines were picked by many to win the Big Ten this year and make the College Football Playoff for the first time.

However, a mostly forgotten part of that game was who the Wolverines were playing — Army, officially the United States Military Academy.

The Black Knights befuddled Michigan for pretty much the entire game, earning three takeaways, and almost completed the massive upset in the closing seconds of regulation, but their field goal attempt sailed wide as Army fell in double overtime.

Very few thought Army had a shot at taking down Michigan, especially in Ann Arbor, but the Knights’ almost pulled off a similar massive upset last season in Oklahoma when they lost in overtime to the then-No. 5 Sooners.

Army ran for more than 300 yards in that 2018 game and converted four fourth-down attempts. By the end of the year, the Knights finished with its first 11-win season in program history.

The rise of the three military academies over the past few years has been impressive to behold.

Army didn’t really live up to its name for years as it retreated from being a national title contender back in the 1940s to an afterthought in the 1990s and 2000s.

However, the Knights have now made three straight bowl appearances and achieved its highest final poll ranking since 1958 last year.

Navy has had more recent success as the Midshipmen accomplished a huge upset of Notre Dame in 2007 in triple overtime, ending a 43-year streak to the Fighting Irish. It’s also beaten the Irish three times in the past 10 years and upset its first ranked opponent in 23 years back in 2008 (No. 16 Wake Forest) along with making both eight straight and six straight bowl games.

Air Force has been the more consistently good team over the last three decades, almost making the national championship game in 1985 and earning bowl bids from 2007-16. The Falcons beat the Irish in 2007, almost beat No. 10 TCU in 2009, lost by three points to the No. 7 Sooners and five to No. 8 Utah in 2010, and yes, almost beat No. 19 Michigan in the Big House in 2012.

Maybe traditional football powerhouses should stop scheduling the academies as it doesn’t seem to bode well for them.

The rise has been impressive, but the fall before that was just as big. The Army-Navy game was must-see TV for years, but even though the contest is still nationally televised, it’s more so because of tradition than due to high quality football. The Midshipmen also rattling off 14 wins in a row over the Knights from 2002-15 didn’t help matters.

Still, when you do decide to tune in, it’s really something to behold with all the traditions and the spectacle as you watch the two academies’ students fully embrace the festivities. Even though the battle is physical and hard fought, at the end, the two teams come together and sing the respective alma mater songs as a sign of mutual respect.

They may have battled each other on the field, but they’re fighting together off it.

Why did all the military schools fall off so badly for such a long time? Well, there’s many reasons for that. The top one is the three schools are hurt by recruiting handicaps. Army, Navy and Air Force have to battle with more than 125 other schools to get athletes, which is significantly more than in the 1960s.

Not only that, but the three schools are under strict restrictions, starting with academics. It’s extremely hard to get into the academies as you must maintain a high grade-point average and high test scores on the SAT or ACT exams.

There’s also height and weight restrictions that don’t exist at other schools, and then there’s that other restriction, military service. All three schools require a military commitment after graduating and that made players’ dreams of making the NFL rather slim.

Now granted, there’s a policy that allows a path for athletes to defer their service obligations as they pursue professional sports opportunities, but that still doesn’t make getting teenagers to make the commitment any easier.

Other problems involve the academies having to make the best of their situation with offenses that aren’t popular anymore. All three schools run the option, which relies heavily on running the ball, and little passing, a stark contrast with most programs these days.

The option doesn’t require a high amount of skill, but instead on everybody being on the same page and knowing what they need to do. That, in a way, is kind of perfect for the idea of an academy as it involves a unit working together instead of just relying on pure talent.

The fact that there are very few schools using that type of offense can make things difficult for opposing defenses as it’s something they’re not used to and have to make adjustments to either the week of the game or on the fly.

Hence, how Army racked up more than 300 rushing yards against Oklahoma. The problem with it arises with recruiting as quality wide receivers and other skill players avoid the academies like a disease as there are few chances they’ll get the ball as much or put up the number of stats that they desire to make it to the NFL.

Still, the academies do the best they can and now, they’ve all proven they can be successful, even with the recruiting restrictions, unique offenses and lack of media exposure.

Army has almost shocked the country twice in back-to-back years, while Navy still has a shot to do so in November when it battles with the No. 7 Irish. Air Force takes on Colorado this afternoon and although it may not be the level of upset as Army’s or Navy’s games, the Falcons could still topple a Pac 12 team and that’s an accomplishment in itself, especially since the Buffaloes are hot, coming off an exciting win over rival Nebraska.

We remembered the 18th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks earlier this week and all three of the academies have had athletes serve overseas at some point.

As tempting as it is to focus in on the major college football programs playing today, we should also remind ourselves to keep an eye on the academies.

With all their efforts and their focus on the field, all three schools have had success over the past few years. So maybe our focus should extend to them.

Ryan Stieg can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 252. His email address is rstieg@miningjournal. net.