Cardinal Sins

Rich Ellerson and the rest of the Army Black Knights know that they don't have any margin for error when they take to the gridiron. Now, that reality is true in a larger context. One awful Saturday means that Army will have to thread the needle in order to return to a bowl game this season.

After beating Northwestern with an inspired performance, an Army football team overflowing with resilience had every right to expect that it had turned the corner in 2011. No, this didn't mean the Black Knights had it made, or that they didn't need to put in the hard yards anymore; it did mean that Army hadn't forgotten how to dig deep in the crucible of gameday pressure.

The win over Northwestern - a Big Ten foe and a regular bowl team - one week after a stomach-punch loss to San Diego State, revealed all the hallmarks of the success story that unfolded in West Point last year. The unbowed demeanor; the relentless pursuit of improvement; the insistence on competing with a maximum of intensity - all the hallmarks of good teams, of bowl teams, emerged in the fullness of time for Army in 2010. After surviving the three-game gauntlet formed by Northern Illinois, San Diego State, and Northwestern, the Brave Old Army Team appeared to have found itself. Actually, that statement needs to be slightly amended: Army appeared to have retained the winning identity it had already discovered during its bowl-winning campaign. With Ball State on the docket in week four, everyone in the West Point locker room should have expected a winning performance... not out of complacency, mind you, but because Army had endured the fires of an 0-2 start and walked over the hot coals represented by the challenging task of taking down Northwestern.

How bitterly ironic it is, then, that after a trial by fire in the first three weeks of the season, Army produced a dumpster fire at Scheumann Stadium in Muncie, Indiana. No offense to the clean, crisp and very efficient Cardinals of Ball State, but Army's performance against a lower-end Mid-American Conference foe was the product of self-inflicted punishment and the very lack of focus the Black Knights had seemingly conquered.

All sports possess their fair share of unpredictability, but college sports are particularly volatile because of the youthfulness of the participants. Much as 24-7 leads and other similarly large scoreboard advantages were never very safe in the latter stages of the 2010 college football season (ask the likes of Boise State and Alabama), it's similarly true that 24-0 and 31-0 leads can be attained by underdogs when the favorites let down their guard in a few key situations. This was the dynamic than ensnared Army and bolstered Ball State this past weekend in the Midwest.

Make no mistake: The Cardinals, under new coach Pete Lembo, are a far better team than they were under former boss Stan Parrish. BSU quarterback Keith Wenning was a study in precision, hitting 80 percent of his passes and presiding over an offense that lit up Army for 333 first-half yards and 17 pre-halftime first downs. However, Wenning and the rest of the Cardinals acquired such runaway confidence because Army handed it to them at critical junctures.

Games are won and lost as a team, but with that having been said, it's impossible to overstate the negative impact of center Will Wilson on this off-the-rails event. It was bad enough that Wilson negated an Army touchdown with the Black Knights trailing 7-0 in the first quarter, but when Wilson replicated his wrongdoings in a 14-0 game one drive later, an emotional tipping point arrived, one that stood in such profound contrast to the always-have-an-answer excellence of the mentally tough triumph over Northwestern.

Against Northwestern, Army immediately responded to negative events with a better, bolder counter. In this blowout loss to Ball State, the pattern was inverted: Army initiated two strong drives in the first half, drives that unfolded in much the same way they did against Northwestern, only to fail to finish the job. Ball State developed the effective responses and enhanced its burgeoning sense of belief, and the Black Knights reaped the consequences. Against Northwestern, Army accessed a deep well of inspiration; against Ball State, the Black Knights fed that inspiration to Ball State in large doses, thanks largely to Wilson's pair of devastating 15-yard penalties.

The supremely crippling element of those twin lapses was not that they put Army in difficult down-and-distance situations (though that obviously hurt a team with an inability to pass the ball). The aspect of those personal fouls which emotionally swung the game was the fact that they negated big plays by the Black Knights' ground game. If the two personal fouls had negated modest four-yard runs that did not carry a particularly large amount of weight, Army wouldn't have been emotionally pierced... certainly not to the extent it was on Saturday. The fact that a touchdown and a long run were wiped out on those two flags is what allowed the calculus of this contest to shift so markedly.

Ball State could see and feel Army's slump in the shoulder; the Cardinal absorbed and inhaled the palpable sense of disappointment that emanated from the eyes behind the face masks of each and every Black Knight. That's how Army dug itself a 38-0 ditch. That's how a game that should have been 14-14 early in the second quarter - and which the Black Knights would have been in good position to win, due to the strength of their 400-yard-worthy rushing attack - spiraled out of control.

Speaking of control, that's what Army now lacks in its 2011 season. The Black Knights figured to be at 2-2 after getting past Northwestern. Sitting at 1-3, this team now knows it will have to beat every inferior foe on the slate and then beat one of four teams - Navy, Vanderbilt, Temple, or Air Force - to merely get back to the 6-6 mark established in the 2010 regular season.

The soaring triumph of spirit and substance against Northwestern pumped an abundance of belief into the Brave Old Army Team. One horrible outing just one week later has sucked all that confidence away from this ballclub. Cardinal sins aren't ordinary sins; they carry particularly painful ramifications. The players in a downcast locker room know that reality all too well as September now gives way to October.

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