Lost Night in Nashville

There are some games in a college football season when there just isn't much to cling to or harp on. The negatives that might exist are minimized by a key injury, and that same injury prevents any positive aspects of performance from receiving their due. Such was the case for the Army football team this past weekend.

An intriguing narrative was developing at Vanderbilt Stadium under the lights. Army was thoroughly outclassed by the Vanderbilt Commodores in the first five minutes of Saturday's back end of a home-and-home series spread out over three years. In 2009, Vanderbilt made the trek to West Point and Michie Stadium, so the Black Knights returned the favor and traveled to Music City to take on the Commodores, a team with similar color patterns and – in more important matters – a shared desire to become a consistent winner in the college football cosmos. When Army fell behind 13-0 before the 10-minute mark of the first quarter, it seemed that the Brave Old Army Team would have a very long night at the office. Oh, it was long, all right, but not in the way any observer could have reasonably expected. This night went wrong for Army not really because of deficiencies or faulty effort, but because of an injury coach Rich Ellerson's club simply could not afford.

Army quarterback Trent Steelman didn't flinch when presented with that lightning-quick 13-point deficit, a deficit created in part by his own botched handoff on Army's first possession. Steelman's early mistake is precisely what allowed Vanderbilt to score two touchdowns within one game-clock minute, so it would have been easy to understand if Army's signal caller, down 13-0, allowed himself to feel the full negative weight of his misstep . A full week of preparation and film study dissolved into a mess just five minutes after kickoff; to be human is to know the uniquely deflating feeling of seeing work and preparation lead to nothing but misery. Steelman could have wilted, but he instead lifted himself off the canvas. Army's second possession was an airtight, mature composition, a resolute touchdown march that immediately restored competitive parity to the proceedings. Steelman wasn't at his best in this game, but he definitely competed well, as did his teammates. With Vanderbilt leading 20-6 late in the second quarter, there was still a sense that if Army could stay in the conversation, it could create some drama in the second half.

That's when Steelman was lost to the night… and the night was lost for everyone on the Black Knights.

Steelman had to be helped off the field when he suffered an injury to (by all initial appearances) his left leg with just over two minutes left in the second quarter. Steelman took a pounding against San Diego State in week two and was briefly replaced by No. 2 quarterback Max Jenkins, but this latest injury clearly affected him to a much greater extent. There would be no inspiring return to action, no replication of his re-entry against San Diego State. Steelman's physical toughness and his internal armor of belief have steadily grown during his West Point football career; the injury had to be appreciably serious. Just how serious? That's not yet known, but against Vanderbilt, it's clear that Steelman's absence was not something the Black Knights were prepared for.

At a place like Arkansas or Oklahoma or USC, a decent (not great, but decent) backup quarterback is a reasonable expectation, but not at a service academy. A depth chart and a recruiting target list just won't feature the depth seen at blue-chip programs. With Steelman, Army had a dog in the fight when it trailed 20-6, but once its main man under center went down, Ellerson's outfit was stripped bare – it had no shield or protection to turn to, and as a result, Vanderbilt roared to a 37-6 lead midway through the third quarter. Army kept playing to the final whistle in an admirable display of perseverance, but the Black Knights' two touchdowns in the final 17 minutes of regulation cannot be seen as a definitive indication of their quality in the weeks to come.

This was a lost weekend for a team that hopes it can get Trent Steelman back. If it can't, the process of evaluating the Black Knights won't be able to begin in earnest until their next game has run its course. Army's defense did get gouged for 198 rushing yards by Vanderbilt running back Zac Stacy, but with the offense unable to sustain drives, the cornerstone of this team's whole philosophy and approach was removed from the equation.

Army has to be able to control the ball to win games - that's something any West Point follower intuitively knows without any need for elaboration. That's why when Steelman exited on his gimpy leg, the ability to control the pigskin was lost. Therefore, Army's defense can't be judged on an absolute scale; the Black Knights should be graded on a curve, accounting for the lack of any offensive assistance in an almost-barren third quarter. If Army can regain the highly productive running game it displayed for periods of time during the first half of the 2011 season, the defense can be assessed in a more accurate and contextually legitimate manner.

Right now, though, attempts to grade the Black Knights amount to little more than grasping at straws. That's what a football life is like when a lost weekend enters the picture.

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