Nerves Of Melted Steel

The Army Black Knights had their chances – four of them, to be precise. The Navy Midshipmen and quarterback Ricky Dobbs were in a giving mood on Saturday at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia. Christmas came two weeks early for a program that needed help to beat Navy for the first time since 2001.

Unfortunately, the big-stage brilliance Army coach Rich Ellerson talked about to CBS analyst Gary Danielson did not manifest itself in the City of Brotherly Love.
The door was open, the portal waiting to be walked through, the threshold waiting to be crossed. Thanks to four turnovers from a Navy quarterback who normally exhibits the highest degree of ball security, the Brave Old Army Team had a grand series of opportunities to make Navy… finally… pay.

There's no getting around the fact that Army received the gifts it needed to put an end to an eight-game losing skid in college football's most revered and globally significant rivalry. The clear and unmistakable sense that pervaded the ballpark before kickoff was that Army wasn't yet ready to beat Navy straight-up if both teams played at an equally high level. The Black Knights needed the Midshipmen to be off their game, and that's exactly what happened at The Linc. Ellerson's optimum scenario unfolded in Philly; a Navy team coming off a double-bye (just like Army) was rusty instead of rested. Dobbs, the heartbeat of Navy's offense, was quite clearly irregular. The Midshipmen's blood didn't flow the way it should have. The boys from Annapolis were vulnerable, and as the fumbles poured from Dobbs's hands in the first half of this contest, the West Point family knew that the ability of the boys in black to turn takeaways into points would decide the latest rendition of this American sports classic.

Instead of giving Navy a heart attack, however, Army's offense became a living defibrillator that restored regularity to the blood which coursed through the Mids' veins and arteries. When Navy was just about to find itself in a dogfight, a skirmish in which momentum would be wearing black jerseys and not white ones with blue trim, Army lost its nerve. Trent Steelman melted… perhaps for just a split-second, but enough to change the entire tone and trajectory of the 111th Army-Navy Game.

The reason why Army made a small but significant improvement, an incremental and elemental yet profound leap from five-win purgatory to the heaven of six wins and a bowl bid, was that Steelman was just a little bit better in taking care of the ball. Army's offense wasn't brilliant during the regular season, but it exhibited better discipline than it did in 2009. Other teams – think especially of Duke (ironically, a team that played a virtually perfect offensive game to win at Navy this year) – imploded against Army. The Black Knights improved their habits and took enough baby steps to produce a non-losing season. However, there's a difference between a non-losing season (the avoidance of a certain level of mediocrity) and a winning season, and that's clearly the barrier Army still hasn't reached. While 6-6 is miles better than 5-7, this space talked a lot over the past few months about the notion of being something better than break-even. Army had that opportunity on Saturday, so it has to sting when one realizes how this game quite literally slipped through the Black Knights' – and Steelman's – fingers.

Indeed, the supremely painful aspect of this 31-17 loss to Navy is that it turned on a Steelman turnover, the fumble that landed in the mitts of Navy's Wyatt Middleton and produced a 98-yard grab-and-score (it wasn't "scoop-and-score" because the fumble never hit the ground and therefore did not require that kind of action). Instead of Navy clinging to a tenuous 17-14 lead at halftime with Army owning all the momentum (and the first possession of the second half), the Mids – despite three Dobbs fumbles and hardly any rushing yards – gained a 24-7 lead. Yes, Navy's offense played horribly in the first half, finding two big plays but doing precious little on an every-down basis. Yet, as a "punishment" for their lackadaisical ballhandling and subpar offensive line play, the young men from the state of Maryland received… no, not a thorough lashing or a comprehensive trashing, but a three-possession scoreboard advantage.

What else is there to say, quite frankly? Not much. Not much at all. The reality is too depressing for words, the gut-punch impact too stinging in its totality. The irony surrounding Steelman's ball security – a source of improvement over 11 games but then deficient in a moment of truth – will linger in the offseason.

While Army fans deal with the shock of "the fumble," a play that will unfortunately be enshrined in the annals of Army-Navy lore, two things are worth mentioning in the aftermath:

First, you might conclude that since this was a 14-point game, the 14-point play (seven points that Army didn't get and seven points that Navy received) was the only important play in the contest. Well, Army partisans can rest in the knowledge that while the play was clearly the most important one on Saturday, it didn't tell 100 percent of the story… only 85. You see, Army still had chances in the second half. The Black Knights held the ball for almost seven minutes to start the third quarter but managed only a field goal. Then, in the final minutes, Army mismanaged the drive that could have created a one-score game. The Black Knights gained a first down inside the Navy 40 with over two minutes left, but for some reason, Ellerson and his staff did not notice the favorable spot the Black Knights received. Army should have executed downfield pass plays (enough to move the chains) on each and every snap, but a needless obsession with gaining first downs on running plays caused at least 45 seconds, if not more, to drip from the clock at The Linc. With better game management and attention to detail, Army could have scored with around 75 or 90 seconds to go in regulation, enough time to recover an onside kick and legitimately tie or win the game. Part of a three-week break (since the time of the team's previous game on Nov. 20) should involve preparation based on game-management situations, but Army was not prepared to run a two-minute drill as crisply as it needed to. Once again, Ellerson came up short against Navy, and he has to own that mistake (again).

The other thing to note in the wake of this painful loss is simply that, for the first time since 1985, a loss to Navy will be followed by a bowl game. Army beat Navy in its other recent bowl-bearing seasons – 1996 and, before that, 1988 – so the Black Knights have not had to use a bowl game as a chance to remove the bad taste of a Navy loss from their system. This year, though, the West Pointers get a chance to do exactly that. The Armed Forces Bowl just grew in importance for a team that must now win that game (against SMU in Fort Worth) to finish with a winning season for 2010. If the margin between 5-7 and 6-6 is small yet significant, the same can be said for the difference between 6-7 and 7-6… a difference Army is about to experience, one way or the other.

One can only hope that against Southern Methodist on Dec. 30, Trent Steelman's nerves – and his hands – will be resistant to melting in the crucible of crunch-time competition. Top Stories