Didn't we have to go through this lamentation last year in Philadelphia? On October 17, 2009, Army dropped a 27-13 decision to Temple in the kind of game that keeps coaches up late at night, muttering to themselves in disbelief. A mere 50 weeks later, the Black Knights found a different yet similarly exasperating way to fall to Philadelphia's finest football force.
This is a better Army team than the one that took the field last year, so it's only more puzzling that this very big fish got away on a gorgeous October afternoon at Michie Stadium. Last year, there was a sense that Army wasn't quite ready to seize the moment (a sense that would prove to be accurate over the remainder of the 2009 season, as the Black Knights fell short of a bowl game and squandered too many opportunities in the final showdown against Navy). This year, on the other hand, clearly conveyed the impression that after a highly successful month of September, Army was ready to finish off wounded opponents when it had the chance to do so.
The go-for-the-throat shutout of North Texas, followed by the quick and convincing kill of Duke on Sept. 25 in Durham, revealed a new and more decisive personality in coach Rich Ellerson's team. With Temple trekking to West Point without its star running back, Bernard Pierce, it certainly seemed for all the world that the Black Knights would have the resources needed to clip the Owls' wings. Moreover, when Army surged to a 28-13 lead in the middle of the third quarter, the Brave Old Army Team established the sizable scoreboard advantage that a run-first, ball-control team craves. Army quarterback Trent Steelman continued to grow into the position on Saturday, exhibiting the turnover-free polish and consummate command Ellerson has been waiting for. One very positive performance at Duke carried over into this tussle with Temple, and when Steelman kept shaking off Temple defensive linemen at the point of attack, Army's triple-option looked darn-near unstoppable. The home team forged a 15-point lead well after halftime, against a mediocre passing team lacking its main breakaway threat at running back.
How could this have gone wrong?
Last year at Lincoln Financial Field, Army was the team that came back from a double-digit deficit, erasing a 13-0 gap but then faltering in the fourth quarter due to a fourth-and-inches failure plus a stack of 14 penalties for 100 yards. Army's defense smothered Temple 50 weeks ago, limiting the Owls to just 195 total yards and only 80 on the ground. West Point football partisans had to absorb an ultra-complicated pigskin puzzler last season, a "how could we play so well on defense and still lose?" mindbender that catapulted Temple toward a bowl bid. This year, the combination of disbelief and agony is the same, but the route Army took to get to that point was quite different. The reality of this loss is hard enough to digest; how the loss came about is even more stomach-churning.
If, by chance, you snuck a peek at Temple earlier in the season, you would have noticed that quarterback Chester Stewart is – to put it kindly – not an impressive or terribly precise passer. Temple butters its bread in the backfield, with Pierce charging ahead behind nuts-and-bolts run blocking from his offensive line. Yet, when Army grabbed a 28-13 lead behind the steadiness of Mr. Steelman, the fact of the matter was that Temple had to pass the ball to win. Army had the Owls right where Ellerson wanted them. The prospect of Temple coming back from 15 points down would have been daunting enough even with Bernard Pierce in the lineup; for coach Al Golden's club to do the deed without its best offensive player represented a long-odds proposition.
Evidently, the Owls are cashing in big-time at the casino, because they somehow found a way to climb out of the ditch they faced.
Whether one plays triple-option football or spread-offense football, this sport is still the same in the end: Players must tend to their assignments and nothing else. As coaches in all sports tell their players, "Do your job." Commentators like to point out that defending the triple option is a matter of playing "assignment football," but the dirty (not-so) secret in this sport is that defending any offense is all about tending to one's own responsibilities. With this in mind, the reason why Army allowed this 28-13 lead to slip away is that the Black Knights didn't carry out their assignments on defense.
How else to explain the easy halfback option pass Temple used to pull within nine points (28-19) just two minutes and change after Army grabbed its 15-point advantage?
How else to explain the inability to cover Temple's Vaughn Charlton on a throwback pass for the 2-point conversion that turned this tilt into a seven-point game (28-21), instead of leaving the Owls trailing by two scores?
How else to explain the pass interference penalty on 3rd and 25, the penalty which breathed fresh life into the Temple camp near the end of the third quarter?
How else to explain the complete lack of focus displayed by Army's secondary on the 28-yard pass from Stewart to Michael Campbell that set up Temple at the Army 5 on the Owls' game-tying drive?
How else to explain the 48-yard connection between Stewart and Campbell on the drive that gave Temple the lead?
The galling aspect of this come-from-ahead loss is that while last year's game involved offensive breakdowns in the latter stages of competition, this year's Temple trip-up occurred because of defensive lapses. Whereas last year's game turned on a fourth-and-short failure from Steelman and the team's rushing attack, this year's game turned because of pass defense on a day when Steelman definitely held up his own end of the bargain.
If a team loses in one form or fashion, it is – in a certain narrow sense – acceptable, given that teams will possess their fair share of limitations and must gradually overcome them to grow into a better unit. That's okay. However, when a team abruptly finds new ways to lose, allowing big plays to occur in ways that weren't entirely expected, an observer is forced to find even greater cause for alarm. When a coaching staff and a defense look at game film – as Ellerson and the Black Knights' defense will do this week – and stumble upon the second half's many "where the heck did that breakdown come from?" moments against Temple, they'll be very irritated, to say the least. That Temple could win by throwing the ball after doing nothing in the air for the first two and a half quarters is a dispiriting reality for this Army defense to contemplate. The fact that Temple soared with the passing game while also missing Bernard Pierce will only make the second-half defensive letdown sting a little more in the West Point locker room. On top of all that, the act of turning Temple's backup running back, Matt Brown, into a 200-yard rusher will eat away at Ellerson and his staff as well.
This was so different from the 2009 loss to Temple, and yet it was so very familiar. Ellerson's words after last year's loss in Philadelphia still ring true following this setback suffered at the hands of the Owls in West Point:
"That game was within the grasp of our coaches and players, and we don't have to be bigger, faster or stronger. We just have to be right."
For the second straight year against Temple, the fourth quarter turned out to be oh-so-wrong.
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