The Art Of Boxing
Football is certainly oversold as a metaphor for war, even though the obvious parallels exist. It's quite reasonable, even enlightened, to point out that what happens on a gridiron is in many ways a form of training for the more important adult responsibilities and the consequential roles West Pointers will confront in the future. However, one should not go overboard in emphasizing the importance of sports. One stands on safer terrain in the realm of metaphor by focusing on the field, trying to pry loose an understanding not of character or virtue (you're not a more virtuous person if you win or a weak-minded person if you lose), but of the reasons why games are won and lost.
On Saturday, Army fell to Ball State not because it failed to compete or even because of an inability to move the ball – the Black Knights put themselves in position to score on several occasions and gained more of a tactical footing as this contest continued. No, the reason why Rich Ellerson's athletes absorbed an eight-point defeat was that they weren't able to box as well as they could have or should have. Football-as-war? Let other voices try to develop that comparison. The more interesting and salient comparison is the one that can be made between Army's offense and a boxer, trying to fight against a slightly more skilled opponent.
It's true that contemporary football is becoming less and less like boxing. This sport often feels like a track meet with the way that so many programs are pursuing the spread offense and finesse-based passing attacks. Even the running games in evidence these days use zone-read concepts, a more cerebral form of football in which the desire to run over an opponent with blunt force is restrained.
Army's triple option and the more traditional (power-I or pro-set) rushing offenses in existence are built on the old-time religion of the sport, the wisdom formulated and then turned into Gospel truth by the General Neylands, Bear Bryants, and Bo Schembechlers of the college football world. Army – like its service-academy brethren – is happy to get four yards a crack and continue that approach for a whole game. Sometimes, a rushing play will gain only three yards, creating a fourth-and-one situation on a number of occasions. However, the presence of that fourth down is a boon for Army, whereas many other teams would see fourth and one as a negative development.
Leaning on an opponent – trusting the ability of the offense and its front line to wear down the defensive front on the other side of the neutral zone – lies at the heart of the triple-option philosophy. This is the case not just because of the recognition that the offense is supposed to get two yards on fourth and one if the first three downs gain three yards apiece; it's also true because that next play – not just a fourth-down play, but the next snap in any sequence – could bring about the home-run gallop that breaks a defense's back. The triple-option is meant to pound out the 16-play drive, but it's also meant to crack open that 64-yard touchdown run in the third quarter when an opposing defense is gassed.
In other words, this is boxing – you need to land punches, either by sticking the three- or four-yard short jabs in rapid-fire succession, or by landing the knockout blows at a later point in the right when the opposing boxer's awareness of the lower-body shots is bringing his eyes down and shifting his focus away from a protective defensive position. One way or the other – either by accumulating points over 15 rounds or delivering the TKO in the 11th round – the triple-option needs to make an impact.
Army just isn't doing enough. It's that simple.
Before continuing this discussion any further, let's realize that we haven't been talking quite as much this year about ball security. Army isn't putting the ball on the turf nearly as often as it did in 2011. It's true that Army did commit a key fumble at the end of a long drive in the second quarter (more on that in a bit), but for the most part, this was a clean offense on Saturday. Sloppiness was not as prominent or paramount in shaping the outcome of this clash with the visiting Cardinals. This result came down to Army's inability to land punches.
Boxers don't get an inexhaustible supply of punches – they run low on fuel after unleashing a devastating flurry, and they must marshal their energies before going resuming an offensive sequence. The boxer who spills an unusually large supply of effort in an attempt to hammer his opponent must do severe damage; committing oneself to the attack is counterproductive if it doesn't substantially change the competitive calculus.
This, in short, is what Army wasn't able to do against Ball State.
On that 14-play second-quarter drive that ended in a fumble, Army might have felt that its last, best chance at gaining momentum had evaporated. However, the Black Knights – still very much in the fight in multiple senses of the expression – were trailing by only one score (17-10) as the second half began. Coming out of the locker room, the opportunity (and the mandate) was clear for the Black Knights: land enough blows, and the Cards would be decked. Army smartly drove to the Ball State 31 in five plays, and it seemed that a turning point was within reach. Following the 14-play drive in the second quarter, the Black Knights had to think that they had planted a seed in the minds of Ball State's defense, affecting the responsiveness of all three layers of the Cardinals' 11-man unit.
Either Army was going to use seven more plays to pound out those final 31 yards, or the home team was going to pop loose a 31-yard touchdown play. One way or another, the triple option was going to land a big blow.
Nope – it never happened… not in the slow-death way, not in the quick-strike template. The drive fizzled, and the sobering truth hit home for Ellerson: His offense, in 23 snaps on two drives, scored three total points.
Army ran low on punches, and Ball State – still in the lead at 17-13 following a Black Knight field goal – became mentally refreshed by the realization that its defense had stood firm despite a high work rate. BSU turned the tables on the West Pointers in the process.
The Cardinals produced a 16-play drive immediately following Army's nine-play field goal march. They didn't exactly punch efficiently in their own right – they also settled for a field goal – but they expunged the sense that Army had taken control of the proceedings. Army's 23 plays' worth of punches had not brought the Black Knights closer on the scoreboard – the home team trailed 17-10 at the start of that 23-play stretch, and it trailed 20-13 when Ball State hit that third-quarter field goal.
When the teams exchanged touchdowns and Ball State got its mitts on the pigskin midway through the fourth quarter, the Cardinals – up 27-20 – landed a series of those short jabs, not drawing blood but piling up beautiful numbers on a judge's scorecard. An 11-play drive took roughly four minutes off the clock and exhausted all three of Army's timeouts. A field goal at the end put Ball State up by two scores, 30-20, with 4:52 left. For any triple-option team, a two-score deficit with five minutes left and no timeouts to call (or call upon) represents a dire predicament. Ball State was the better puncher on Saturday, winning a bout that was legitimately tough yet more convincing than a mere split decision. Had three judges scored the fight, they would have been unanimous in declaring coach Pete Lembo's team the winner.
For Army, it's time to go back to the gym and sharpen those mechanics… not because they were sloppy, but because the Black Knights' punches simply weren't lethal enough against Ball State.
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