Right Place, Right Time, Wrong Reaction
And so it goes for the Army football program. The scoreboard and the headlines will say that Navy defeated Army by six points on Saturday at FedEx Field in Landover, Maryland, in the 112th edition of this hallowed college football event. Technically, that's true. However, it's very hard to shake the sense that Army beat itself this time, even more than in past years. It's correct to point out that the nine-game losing streak the Black Knights took to Saturday's showdown was in many ways the product of many self-inflicted wounds. It's unassailable to note that Army has been unable to get out of its own way in this supremely storied service-academy rivalry. However, the inconvenient fact Army fans have had to deal with over the past nine years is that from 2002 through 2009, Navy consistently outclassed the Black Knights. The Midshipmen molded themselves into a quality program which consistently made bowl games and established high standards over an extended period of time. Navy didn't arrive at eight straight wins over Army by accident. The Mids were better; they made themselves better. They forced Army to play at a higher level, and the Black Knights couldn't raise their game.
In 2010, the contours of this rivalry weren't transformed, but they at least offered signs of hope for Army. The winning streak reached nine games for Navy, but the Midshipmen offered Army a portal to a second-half comeback. The game-turning fumble at the Navy 3 certainly represented a profound failure on the part of the Black Knights' offense, but what's also worth pointing out is that once that 97-yard scoop-and-score unfolded, Navy ran away (literally) with yet another triumph over the lads from West Point. It's true that in 2010, Army still made key mistakes, but it also needs to be said that after 60 minutes, Navy's superiority in this rivalry remained unquestioned. Last year's throwdown in Philadelphia wasn't the typically convincing Navy conquest which had characterized most editions of this nine-game Army nightmare, but it didn't yet feel like an event in which Army competed on even terms for the duration.
With the past serving as prelude, one should begin to understand why the 2011 Army-Navy Game is by far the most discouraging and disappointing loss for West Point in its ongoing gridiron struggle against the athletes from Annapolis.
After Army started running downhill and punching Navy in the mouth, this clash felt different. After the Black Knights erased an early 14-0 deficit and showed a pigskin personality which had been largely absent from 2002 through 2009 and only partially in evidence in 2010, it became reasonable to think that the nine-game streak would end. It became entirely logical and convincing to identify Army as the team in control of the action inside the home of the Washington Redskins. Army had, after all, put Air Force squarely on the ropes in Colorado Springs this season. The Black Knights had shown that they could throw haymakers in the realm of service-academy football and play well enough to outclass a military rival. The good side of the Black Knights – their best gridiron incarnation – had made just enough appearances in the first 11 games of 2011 to warrant a vote of confidence… this, despite the nine-game losing skid against Navy.
This time, it all felt different, especially after Navy quarterback Kriss Proctor fumbled a second time to give Army the ball in Midshipmen territory midway through the third quarter of a 21-all tie.
This time, it all felt different, especially after Navy committed a false-start penalty on third and goal at the 1 in the fourth quarter, settling for a field goal in a situation that would have produced a touchdown in past years.
This time, it all felt different, especially after Army's defense produced yet another bold stand following a Black Knight fumble which gave Navy a short field. When Army somehow avoided the Navy kill shot and trailed by only six points heading into the final minutes, the winning script was still there, waiting to be written.
This time, it all felt different, especially after Army drove inside the Navy 30 with under seven minutes left and had all the momentum on its side. Time and time again, the Black Knights encountered a late-stage moment in which they, not the Midshipmen, held the cards.
Each time, they collapsed. Each time, they flinched. Each time, they shrank when opportunity was knock, knock, knocking on the door.
The Proctor fumble midway through the third quarter was immediately followed by a 15-yard chop block penalty and a fumble. Navy's tiebreaking fourth-quarter field goal – a huge boost for Army and its defense – was immediately followed by Army's fumbled kickoff on the very next play. The Black Knights' final drive – which looked so promising – was cut short because of a protection breakdown which caused a drive-busting second-down sack. It largely died only after Ellerson – who did not coach well in the final five minutes – called a timeout before a 4th and 7 play from the Navy 25. The timeout limited Army's ability to get the ball back with enough time left on the clock in the event of a failure. When Army got stopped (and rather easily at that), Ellerson didn't have enough clock-stopping poker chips in his pocket. The fourth-down play selection – an option play without wrinkles or misdirection principles – left something to the imagination especially since it followed a timeout.
And then came the mindless offside penalty which fully sealed the Brave Old Army Team's fate in the final minutes.
The specific components of this game require no embellishment: This time, Army had posted 21 points and played Navy on even terms in the trenches. This time, Army was the better passing team. This time, Army's defense stood tall in the red zone in the fourth quarter against Navy, a blessed event which hadn't happened in the prior editions of this long losing streak. This time, it wasn't the same old story in an Army-Navy headknocker… not on many levels. The gap was closed this time, the margin between these two teams reduced to a very small sliver. This was the first time since 2001 that Army has punched back at Navy with equal if not superior force. This was the first time since 2001 that the Black Knights were, at the very least, Navy's equal for 60 minutes.
There's just one nagging little thing which did not change: Army couldn't deliver the final blow. The chop-block penalty. The fumbled kickoff. The second-down sack. The fourth-down timeout followed by an utterly uninspired play call and a dreadful result. The offside penalty at the end.
Army had failed to play as well as it could have from 2002 through 2010, but Navy left no doubt that it was better when all was said and done. This year was different. The fact that the 2011 Army-Navy Game still generated the same scoreboard outcome is what will make the coming winter so hard to shoulder in the shadows of Michie Stadium.
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