WEST POINT, N.Y. -- After running rampant for three straight weeks, the Army triple option finally has that elusive first victory.
Trent Steelman scored three touchdowns for the second straight week, including the game-winner on a 1-yard plunge with 2:49 remaining, and the Black Knights (1-2) didn't self-destruct for a change, beating Northwestern 21-14 on Saturday.
"They played on the edge," Army coach Rich Ellerson said. "We have a chance now. We needed one of these three. We've grown each week, they've been able to stay together and make some mistakes. We got our nose bloodied a couple of times, and we struggled doing some things, but we stayed together and we believed in ourselves."
While losing its first two games to Northern Illinois and San Diego State, Army rushed for over 700 yards but turned the ball over three times in each and was a minus-2 per game in turnover margin.
Steelman, who lost two of three fumbles in a 23-20 loss to the Aztecs a week ago, had two more against the Wildcats, losing one. But neither cost the Black Knights this time, thanks to a defense that held Northwestern to 10 yards offensively in the third quarter and 117 in the second half -- and 62 came on the play that tied the game.
Army held the ball for just over 40 minutes and finished with 381 yards rushing on 75 carries to Northwestern's 115 yards on 27 tries. The teams entered the game ranked 1-2 nationally in total number of rushes. The Wildcats also converted 3 of 12 third downs after averaging 50 percent the first two games.
"Our main goal was to come out strong and make a statement. That's what we did," said Steelman, who also scored on runs of 1 and 17 yards. "That's what we did. The offensive line blocked until they couldn't block anymore. I was almost in tears after that last touchdown."
Steelman finished with a game-high 108 yards rushing on 28 carries.
Malcolm Brown had a 23-yard gain on a pitch right to jump-start the decisive drive for Army. Raymond Maples added a 17-yard run off a great fake by Steelman in the middle of the line, and Scott Williams had a 17-yard run around the left side to key the surge.
Steelman converted a third-and-6 play from the 9 and scored two plays later.
"The difference in the game was Trent Steelman," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said.
The Wildcats had one last chance to tie, and third-string quarterback Trevor Siemian hit wideout Jeremy Ebert for 18 yards into Army territory. But the Army defense forced an incompletion on fourth down with 66 seconds left.
"As a defensive player, that's what you want," Army linebacker Nate Combs said. "You want the weight on your shoulders after the offense punches it in. We knew it was our time to shine. I think we proved ourselves and found our identity."
Colter was 12 of 23 passing for 89 yards and gained 57 yards rushing on 10 carries after guiding the Wildcats to victory in the first two games of the season.
"I just had a terrible game and let my team down," Colter said. "I'm going to come back and work hard and try to fix all of that."
Ebert also had a 14-yard touchdown catch in the second quarter from Colter, who started his third straight game in place of injured Dan Persa, and a 62-yarder from Siemian in the fourth quarter.
Persa, recovering from a torn right Achilles tendon suffered last November, warmed up before the game and had a headset on during the action. He's expected to return Oct. 1 when Northwestern (2-1) opens Big Ten action against Illinois.
Siemian, a redshirt freshman, replaced Colter after Army's Alex Carlton missed a 26-yard field goal just past the midway point of the fourth quarter, and the Wildcats scored in just three plays. The third was a short dump to Ebert, and he outran the only defender that had a chance to knot the score at 14 with 6:03 left.
Steelman lost the handle after a snap early in the second quarter and quickly pounced on it, but he wasn't so lucky midway through the third. He again mishandled a handoff, and linebacker Ben Johnson recovered for Northwestern at the Army 30.
The Army defense forced two incompletions, and a sack by Army linebacker Steven Erzinger allowed the Black Knights to escape.
Army's triple option thrives on ball control -- the Black Knights entered the game ranked second nationally in rushing, averaging 353 yards, and second in possession time, averaging 37 minutes, 35 seconds -- and it couldn't have operated much better than on Army's first possession of the game.
After forcing the Wildcats to punt, Army marched 81 yards on 18 plays on a drive that lasted nearly 9 minutes. Steelman had seven carries for 49 yards, including a 6-yard run left on a fourth-and-5 play from the Northwestern 38-yard line and scored on a pretty 17-yard scamper around the left side with 3:39 left in the opening quarter.
It was the first time Army had led this season.
After driving the Wildcats deep into Army territory, Colter never flinched on his first career touchdown pass after a holding call against Northwestern on a first-and-goal from the Army 9. On the next play from the 14, he hit Ebert over the middle as Ebert made a pretty leaping catch at the back of the end zone behind the Army defenders with 5:23 left in the half.