It was all so poetic and romantic: Across the internet, a not-so-ordinary college football Saturday was frequently met with this comment on the ninth anniversary of 9/11: "You're going to have a hard time beating Army today." When the Black Knights of the Hudson responded to a 21-point Hawaii lead and reeled off 28 consecutive points to take the lead over the Warriors on an emotional day at West Point, a feel-good movie of the year was about to be written.
Then, unfortunately – but unfortunately on a most trivial level – the Brave Old Army Team lost sight of the script it was writing.
Yes, a day like 9/11 reminds us that the outcome of a football game is entirely trivial in the larger run of life. It's always quite healthy to be brought in touch with such a truth. Yet, as the father of college football legend Steve Spurrier always said, "They wouldn't keep score if the object isn't to win." Yes, the Reverend Graham Spurrier expressed the idea of competition as succinctly as anyone ever has. There are true problems in this world, problems which truly tear at the human heart, but for three and a half hours on an anniversary of a dark day in American history, the Army football team had a football game to win. It was winnable, it was there for the taking, and the West Pointers just couldn't grab the gold when money time arrived.
The reality of this 31-28 loss to Hawaii brings us back to where this season started a week before. It's not normal to go back to the previous week's column in order to express a core truth about an unfolding season, but this week marks the exception that proves the
Remember what was penned last week?
In the bottom-line world of college football – where you get only 12 chances to define yourself – it's going to be very hard to play the "what-if" game with the Brave Old Army Team.
The hard part about the 2009 season… is that it could be spun either way. Army was either a few plays away from being 7-5, or a few plays away from being 3-9. (Stan) Brock-era blowouts were less copious, but somehow, that undeniable elevation of quality under (Rich) Ellerson did not remove contentiousness from a debate about Army's football identity.
Therefore, be it resolved that we're not going to have any more of these "well, we're only a few good plays from being 8-4" or "a few bad plays from 3-9" discussions. A world of close games is the world Army football lives in. This team will either conquer a majority of late-game crucibles in 2010, or it will fall short. The Black Knights will either suck it up and produce something akin to the ballsy, two-minute-and-21-second cash-money drive they produced in the final minutes against Eastern Michigan, or they won't.
No one will be doing this team any favors come mid-December if a 3-9 season is met with the response, "Oh, but we were so close to going to a bowl game! We're just about to turn the corner!" No, that would be a terrible way to frame 2010 if that's the way things unfold.
Similarly, if Army posts an 8-4 record, it would be not only uncharitable, but downright wrong, to find an inner Grinch and contend that "Bah, the team was just a few 50-50 plays from being 5-7 again, just like 2009!" Such a view would rob a team of verifiable progress and hard-won improvements.
Plainly put, there's no place for saying that this team should be 2-0. It isn't. There's just no good reason to say that Army outplayed Hawaii in the second half, because the first half found the Black Knights stuck in molasses against Bryant Moniz and UH's spread-‘em-out passing attack. It doesn't do much good to promote Army's 17-play fourth-quarter drive, a march that used up more than eight minutes of clock time, when it failed to score a single point. Noting the resilience of Army's offense – which got the ball back and moved to the Hawaii 23 in the final minutes of regulation – is worthless when you then account for the Max Jenkins fumble that put an end to the drive and enabled Hawaii to steal the game late, helped along by a personal foul penalty on Army's Steve Erzinger.
Ellerson – a man with ties to both the Hawaii and Army programs (UH as a player and assistant coach; Army through his father and brothers, who attended West Point) – was unsurprisingly able to frame this game in a proper manner. Speaking with an eye toward the bigger picture and not the what-ifs that can consume a fan base, Ellerson reminded the Army football family that the whole of a game is the measure of a team, not the handful of plays that get picked out as either aberrations or shining examples.
"We had chances all the way through," said Ellerson after absorbing this three-point loss. "When a game comes down to a single play, you got to count all of them. You can't just count the one that catches your imagination at the end. Certainly we need those, but there are a hundred chances."
"We need to find another play," Ellerson continued in his on-point football sermonette. "Every phase of the game had a chance to make a difference. We're not talking about two plays or 10 plays. We're talking about a play. ... We're going to find it. We're going to find that win. If we can get into an uphill fight like that physically, and we can dig a hole for ourselves and battle back like that, we can win some football games."
Plainly put, it's all about the doing. Army will either tend to business, or it will leave victories on the field. Don't say this is a team that should be 2-0. You are what you are, and perhaps this loss – which made an inspiring comeback all for naught on 9/11 – will forcefully affirm that football truth for Black Knights of all ages and dispositions.
Hawaii Review: Ifs, Buts, Candy, and Nuts
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