PHILADELPHIA — Army senior wide receiver Alejandro Vilanueva stands 10 inches taller than his freshman quarterback. The senior is training to lead an infantry unit after he graduates this spring. The freshman looks as if he just earned his driver’s license. Yet neither could hide the disappointment each shared behind their smudged eye black following another loss to Navy.
It was Army’s eighth consecutive loss to its traditional rival. However, in a game that had turned into an annual rout with Navy outscoring Army 291-74 in those first seven wins, Army showed a pulse.
“It kind of takes away from the rivalry when you beat a team 34-0 and 38-3,” said Navy offensive captain Osei Asante, referring to the last two Army-Navy.
Navy won 17-3 at Lincoln Financial Field on Dec. 12 after quarterback Ricky Dobbs threw one touchdown and ran for another in the second half, but after the first 30 minutes coach Ken Niumatalolo’s team was worried. It trailed Army 3-0 at half — the first halftime lead for Army since 2001.
Army’s defense earned that lead after shutting out Navy’s potent triple option attack in the first half. But Vilanueva and quarterback Trent Steelman have symbolized the rebuilding project first-year head coach Rich Ellerson is trying to achieve — a rebuilding project that Ellerson said will result in wins over Navy.
“There is nothing I can do right now to help with this horrible feeling of hurt, but it’s not going to be long before we start to reflect and appreciate how far we’ve come,” he said. “We don’t have the storybook ending we all wished for and wanted, but we did everything to set it up.”
In order to reverse a football program that has not had a winning season in 13 years, Ellerson brought with him to West Point the same blueprint that has made the Midshipmen a regular on the bowl circuit — the triple option.
Ellerson expected the first year to be tough. He introduced a run-based attack to players recruited to fit in under former coach Stan Brock’s pro-style offense. Brock tried to adapt his offense to the triple option last season, but the team only won three games and Brock was fired.
When Ellerson arrived from Cal Polytechnic State University, where he similarly rebuilt the football program, he needed his players like Vilanueva and Steelman to accept change.
Ellerson asked Vilanueva to make the highly unorthodox move from offensive tackle to wide receiver after he recognized the athletic tools the 6-foot-10 inch senior possessed. The 283-pound wide receiver put in the work and ended the year leading the team in receiving (522 yards) and touchdown receptions (5).
“His story is remarkable … he didn’t know wide receiver from third base,” Ellerson said. “And he’s not just a big receiver. He’s blocking out there. He’s catching out there. He’s running real routes and that’s all over the course of the year.”
At quarterback, Ellerson asked a freshman to start. Steelman, 20, had a unique plebe year as he became the first Army freshman quarterback to start 12 games.
He faced a challenge Vilanueva will encounter after graduation. Just as Vilanueva will soon be asked to lead non-commissioned officers as an infantry officer, Steelman had to take a leadership role and earn his upperclassmen’s trust.
“As a platoon leader you are going to have NCOs that have been deployed four or five times even six times with this state of the war. So what [Steelman] was saying as being a platoon leader you have to show your guys that you are competent and you want to work hard. That is something that football has definitely taught us all here,” Vilanueva said.
Steelman said the seniors brought him under his wing, including senior quarterback Carson Williams. Williams, who started his freshman and sophomore seasons, could have been bitter and a distraction, but Steelman said he and the rest of the seniors helped tutor him through the year.
“Without them pulling me in and accepting a freshman playing with them, it would have never worked and they did a great job of that working with me and accepting me as one of the boys. Looking back on all the game experience will only help me for next year,” Steelman said.
Ellerson’s gamble has already started to pay off. The Black Knights won five games — the most by an Army team since 1996. Army’s loss to Navy not only meant another senior class would graduate without experiencing a win over Navy, but it also denied Army a berth in the EagleBank Bowl.
It’s a win Steelman desperately wanted for Vilanueva and the rest of the seniors. Even after Steelman broke a rib in the first half, he refused to come out.
“There was no way I was gonna come out of this game,” Steelman said. “I had to get it done for [the seniors].”
For Vilanueva, his career is over. He said after the game that he looks forward to watching how far Ellerson can take the team next year, but he’ll have to settle for a view from the sideline.
“It’s time to hand in the cleats and pick up the ruck,” Vilanueva said.