When Magic Works Against You
Twelve Saturdays. That's all you get to make your name and reputation in college football. Twelve Saturdays – roughly 40 hours of actual time – encompass months of preparation and training, weeks of in-season practice, years of hopes stored up for this rare and precious chance to participate in the spectacle of a wildly popular tradition-soaked sport.
Twelve Saturdays – they can break just right or they can turn just wrong, or fall somewhere in between. Twelve Saturdays – they represent unpredictable chemical cocktails of luck, skill, timely interventions, and untimely lapses. The teams that make the successful journeys aren't just talented; they get the right breaks in the right ways at the right times, offering them a maximum of leverage due to the surrounding circumstances. To be clear, the best teams take advantage of the breaks they get, but the point of emphasis is that fortune favors them at just about every step along the way.
For Army and head coach Rich Ellerson, the 2012 campaign has represented one, long, cruel inversion of a joyride, the exact antithesis of a season kissed by providence in meaningful moments and high-leverage situations.
While Notre Dame watches as opposing offenses fail to make available plays in crunch time; while Florida watches its opponents cough up turnovers left and right; and while Oregon State benefits from the mediocrity of its Pac-12 foes, Army is living on the other side of the tracks. The Black Knights know that they're not good enough to dominate opposing teams and gain the 17-point cushions that can make them immune to brief bouts of misfortune. However, when locked in tight games, Army hasn't been able to take fragile tipping-point moments in its favor.
Such was the case in Saturday afternoon's loss to the Eastern Michigan Eagles in Ypsilanti, Mich.
The Brave Old Army Team was in the midst of forging a very impressive comeback on the road. The Black Knights, knocked out of the box with two quick EMU touchdowns, trailed 14-0 and had to clear the cobwebs from their eyes. Promptly, that's what Ellerson's athletes proceeded to do. Army scored 17 of the game's next 24 points, and when Alex Meier picked off Eastern Michigan quarterback Tyler Benz at the Black Knights' 1-yard line, returning the interception two thirds of the field, the visitors from West Point were about to create a 14-point swing and get the lead.
Everything was set up for Army at that point. A touchdown would have done much more than merely giving the Black Knights the lead; it would have consolidated momentum and, most of all, dented the Eagles' psyches. EMU didn't have a single win to its credit; as much as Army has been struggling with itself in 2012, its opponent on Saturday faced that same demon of doubt. It's not that these teams fail to compete with honest and vigorous effort each weekend; that's not the issue for most college football clubs who live below the .500 mark in a state of prolonged misery. The problem for Army and Eastern Michigan in 2012 is that when the Black Knights and Eagles arrive at junctions where peril and opportunity cross paths, the reality of disappointment wins. Stomach-punch plays take the wind out of a surge while lending ballast to a renewed and revived foe.
Army and Eastern Michigan had been on the same (losing) side of this dynamic 11 of 12 times in the first half of the season, with the only exception being Army's never-say-die win over Boston College a few weeks ago. When these teams met on the same field, one of them was going to experience the sunshine side of a pivotal in-game transformation. Army thought it had claimed that moment on Meier's pick-and-return special, a clutch defensive play that had been largely absent from the Black Knights' 2012 portfolio.
Yet, momentum-swinging sequences aren't fully meaningful unless or until they're complemented and completed by decisive strikes – finishing strikes – on the other side of the ball. Army dropped that ball – literally and metaphorically – on an afternoon that has typified a team's season.
You can't blame Ellerson or any of the Army coaches for what happened on Army's red-zone trip, down 21-17 in the latter stages of the second quarter. Trent Steelman, the same player who dazzled for most of this game by ripping off touchdown runs of 75 and 73 yards en route to a 212-yard afternoon as a ballcarrier, fumbled at the EMU 6-yard line. A young man who did so many things well for more than three hours was severely punished for one of his few deficient displays.
The Eagles' following possession generated a predictable yet shattering outcome, a touchdown in the dying seconds of the first half that gave the home team an 11-point lead at the break, forcing the minds of every Army player to dwell on the dark-cartoon-raincloud way in which the second quarter concluded. One can be sure that Ellerson and the rest of the staff tried to tell their players to forge ahead and put that series of events out of their minds, but with human nature being what it is, it's hard for anyone – especially 19- and 20-year-old persons in the midst of a losing season – to acquire the clarity and perfect discipline needed to ignore the 1-2 punch that left the Black Knights dazed and disheartened.
The ironies are too great to ignore: Army's offense flourished on Saturday, and yet the Black Knights were dealt a crippling blow by that very same offensive unit. Army's defense has now participated in three games this season that have turned into losses despite the fact that the Black Knights have scored at least 37 points in each of them; yet, it was the defense that opened the door for a comeback against Eastern Michigan… only for that door to be slammed shut on a fumble just six yards away from paydirt.
Life – like a college football season – can call out to the fates all it wants. Sometimes, though, such pleas get ignored. The season that fortune forgot carries on for Army. Maybe some of the luck that has rubbed off on Notre Dame, Florida, and Oregon State will soon flow to West Point, New York.
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