PHILADELPHIA – Bobby Ross’ rebuilding project at Army is one victory away from completion.

Since arriving at West Point two years ago, Ross has steadily improved college football’s worst team. Army (4-6) still hasn’t had a winning season since 1996, but it’s no longer a laughingstock program.

A win against Navy (6-4) on Saturday would validate Army’s turnaround. The Black Knights have won four straight games after starting 0-6, and capturing the Commander-In-Chief’s trophy would be another significant step forward.

“It’ll add a lot more legitimacy to our program, help with recruiting. It’ll keep us rolling into next year,” Army defensive back Dhyan Tarver said. “That 5-6 will really look great in how we did it. We’re just really rolling.”

Army certainly has come a long way since 2003, when it suffered the ignominy of being the first Division I-A team to finish 0-13. The Black Knights finished 2-9 under Ross last year, making strides toward earning respectability.

They showed their resiliency by not giving up after losing the first six games this season.

“We played competitively, but we got beat. We reached a point of 0-6 and you might have some kids that might throw it in, but our kids sustained,” Ross said. “They sustained their effort. They sustained their concentration. I think it’s just a real credit to our players and our coaches. We are starting to get back on track.”

Meanwhile, Navy has been a model for overcoming adversity and rising from the bottom. The Midshipmen fought way back from a winless season in 2001 and are headed to their third straight bowl game, a first in the academy’s history.

“If they can do it, we ought to be able to do it,” Ross said.

Navy capped a 10-2 year by defeating New Mexico in the Emerald Bowl last season. The Midshipmen started this year with losses to Maryland and Stanford, but won their next four games. Following a victory over woeful Temple, Navy accepted an invitation to play in the inaugural Poinsettia Bowl on Dec. 22 in San Diego.

Of course, the Midshipmen are far more concerned with beating Army than playing Colorado State in the bowl game.

“It’s the biggest game of the year,” Navy coach Paul Johnson said. “You are playing for so many different aspects. You are playing for not only the Brigade, but for Sailors and Marines out there, for bragging rights. It’s just a neat, neat game.”

There is even some added intrigue. The coveted Commander-In-Chief’s trophy, awarded annually to the winner of the football competition between the three major service academies, was stolen Monday night from the Navy locker room.

Left in its place was a note that read: “Before we win the football game on Saturday, we thought we would take the trophy. By the time you read this, it will be halfway to West Point,” home of the U.S. Military Academy.

The Midshipmen have won five of the last six meetings against Army to tie the overall series at 49-49-7. Navy has outscored Army 134-31 in the last three games. But the Black Knights are a much better team now. “They have confidence and they have a little swagger. We have to see if we can’t take that away a little bit,” Johnson said. “They’ve given themselves a chance to win. They’ve learned how to win instead of how to lose. I think you have to give coach Ross and their staff credit for that. They are playing smarter.”

Navy leads the nation in rushing offense, averaging 287.5 yards per game on the ground. Sophomore Adam Ballard took over for injured fullback Matt Hall three weeks ago and will get his second career start against Army. Quarterback Lamar Owens leads the team with 731 yards rushing, Marco Nelson has 376 and Ballard has 347.

Carlton Jones leads Army with 944 yards rushing and Zac Dahman has passed for 1,609 yards, eight touchdowns and 13 interceptions.

AP-ES-12-02-05 1415EST

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