One hastens to say at the outset that the gruesome injury suffered by North Texas backup quarterback Derek Thompson is the kind of event no one ever hopes for. Thompson suffered a broken leg in his first start of 2010, just one week after UNT's No. 1 quarterback, Nathan Tune, was lost for several weeks – and likely the full season – due to a dislocated right hip. Injuries are the most wrenching aspect of this violent sport, and the competitive spirit inside each and every participant – coaches and players alike – wants to beat the opposition at its very best. There is no more satisfying feeling for an athlete than to whip a fully-loaded opponent, to conquer a team that had a full complement of resources at its disposal. There is no question that Thompson's injury cast something of a pall over Saturday's game at Michie Stadium, and there's no shame in admitting as much.
Yet, as much as the Thompson injury saddened everyone who came to the ballpark on a sun-splashed September afternoon, one also has to say – with sobriety but clarity – that it did change the competitive calculus of this contest.
Thompson might not have been the top quarterback on the opening-week depth chart for North Texas coach Todd Dodge, but he was one of the two men who battled for the starting spot throughout the course of training camp in August. When Thompson got knocked out of commission, the Mean Green didn't have a fully-trained quarterback waiting in the wings. Riley Dodge – the son of the UNT coach – did quarterback the 2009 squad in Denton, Texas, but he was converted to a receiver this year and had not been taking reps under center. Moreover, Dodge did not enter this game mentally ready to assume the duties of a quarterback; the hope on the UNT sideline was that one week after Nathan Tune's severe injury, another brutal bolt of lightning wouldn't hit the Mean Green's No. 2 quarterback.
Alas, it did.
The young men wearing the black and gold of Army surely realized this, and they just as surely took some time to inwardly lament the fate that can so easily befall any football player on any snap. Yet, when Derek Thompson was assisted off the field, the fact of the matter was that there were almost three full quarters of football to be played. Yes, North Texas had been given a terrible set of cards, but the Black Knights – suddenly given even more of an upper hand than they already owned – had to adjust to the situation as well.
The physical toll of sports generally means that injuries catch up with the teams who absorb them. However, the history of sport is replete with examples of injured athletes and depleted teams still finding ways to win. A tennis player – looking at an injured opponent on the other side of the net – starts playing very tentatively and cautiously, while his injured opponent hits the ball harder in an attempt to win points. The injured player winds up competing with far more fearlessness and passion, prevailing in spite of his physical limitations. In basketball, a modest level of pain will sometimes help a player's game by forcing that player to be more conscious of each and every body movement. Slightly injured basketball players (not heavily injured ones, of course) are not tempted to play out of control; they make better and more rational decisions and they exhibit more patience at the offensive end of the floor. These are but a few examples of how injuries – though naturally luckless events – can still work to the advantage of the victim.
The point of mentioning all this – in going back to the theme raised at the beginning of this piece – is that when bad luck occurs, it's not just the victim that must adjust; the beneficiary of bad luck also has to reshape itself.
The bottom line from Saturday is that Army adjusted expertly and artfully.
The Black Knights of the Hudson didn't flinch after the Thompson injury. They didn't allow themselves to get thrown off by the course of events. They didn't get sucked into an ugly game or allow North Texas's level of play to drag them down. Army didn't play down to the level of its decidedly diminished competition. Ellerson's athletes – aware of the misfortune undeservingly experienced by North Texas – matter-of-factly went about the business of playing the game in front of them.
They limited UNT to 201 total yards.
They pitched a shutout.
They didn't commit a single turnover or produce the kind of gaffe that could have given the Mean Green a quick and easy ticket back into contention. On a day when so many of college football's biggest games were filled with turnovers and special-teams breakdowns, Army played airtight ball.
The Black Knights – in addition to their zero-turnover showing – also committed just two penalties.
Basically, on a day when Army's number-one priority was to give nothing away to its Sun Belt Conference opponent, the West Pointers did exactly what they needed to do.
Rarely has this team so precisely hit the target on a Saturday, and that has to be very encouraging as the 2010 season moves forward. This might not have been an overwhelmingly good performance, given the limitations on the North Texas side of the divide, but one is confident in saying that this was a supremely mature portrait of Army football. Given the sad events of the second quarter, Army showed tremendous focus and an admirable ability to confront the situation at hand. This eye-on-the-ball awareness will serve the Black Knights quite well in the weeks ahead.
Army slot back Jonathan Crucitti dives over North Texas defender A.J. Penson during the first half of an NCAA college football game in West Point, N.Y., on Saturday, Sept. 18, 2010. Crucitti was ruled out of bounds on the play. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)