That Sinking Feeling
Collegiate sports, unlike professional sports, don't provide the regularity and exclusivity of training that can allow for a streamlined and supremely consistent level of performance each and every week. Alabama has set the standard for generating almost machine-like steadiness in college football, and yet the Crimson Tide have noticeably slipped in their own right over the past two weeks. Human beings, imperfect creatures that we are, will not be able to play the same way on every gameday. However, the point is plain: Professional sports require – and executives expect – repetitive quality from athletes. Collegiate competitors should not be held to the same standard, though sometimes the media microscope creates the appearance that they are.
At a service academy football program, the emphasis on and availability of football-specific training is even less than it would be at many other schools. When college football was less specialized and more exclusively ruled by one-dimensional brute force, Army and Navy could become national powerhouses (in the first two thirds of the 21st century). Changes in college football – and the larger world of service academies – have altered the dynamics of competition and the expectations surrounding them. On these points, there should be no debate. Dominance is not something the service-academy programs are (or will be) in position to attain.
Yet, while the large-scale calculus works against Army, the Black Knights and any other team that's trying to fight an uphill battle does not have to be weighed down by the big picture. As any life coach will tell you, the positive attitude connected to improved performance and overall success is borne of an ability to focus only on the next play, the next moment, the task immediately in front of one's eyes. This construct provides the backdrop for Saturday's game against a different group of Knights, the Scarlet ones from Rutgers University.
Coming into this game, the conventional wisdom held that Army was going to have a tough time regrouping on a mental level after its max-out masterpiece against Air Force. Army, which had not played at a particularly high level on a weekly basis this season, brought something special to the party in a Commander-In-Chief's Trophy clash. Returning to a (quote-unquote) "normal" gameday context against an opponent with only one loss – and on the road – Army, winless away from Michie Stadium in 2012, did not figure to hold up well. Rutgers, coming off a humbling 12-point home loss to a Mid-American Conference team (Kent State) and having an extra (bye) week to think about that setback, was supposed to be fresh and ready, armed with a good game plan and a renewed outlook. Army was supposed to get smacked around in Piscataway, N.J.
That didn't happen. Moreover, not only did Rutgers fail to punish Army; the Black Knights slapped the Scarlet Knights silly.
Army won the battle at the line of scrimmage through the first three quarters, and handily so. The Black Knights held Rutgers to just 113 rushing yards on Saturday and only 252 total yards. Army's triple-option offense did what any triple-option attack is supposed to do: Create and convert third downs. Army made 10 of 20 third downs while Rutgers converted only two in nine tries. Those stats reflect substantial ball-control superiority, consistent with the pace and style that Army and head coach Rich Ellerson would prefer. The Black Knights committed just two penalties on the day for only 10 total yards. They allowed only seven points to Rutgers through three quarters.
The score after 45 minutes of football in the Garden State: 7-7.
Here's the tricky thing to understand about consistency and its elusiveness, relative to Saturday's game: While it was going to be hard for Army to sustain enough quality to defeat Rutgers, the Black Knights did prove to be consistent at a high level… just in ways that didn't translate to success.
Here's the unpacking of what that statement means: Despite several stomach-punch moments – two blocked field goals, shanked punts, and fumbles deep in Rutgers territory, the miscues that eventually doomed the Black Knights – Army kept coming back. A lot of observers surely thought that as Army's mistakes mounted, Rutgers was going to take advantage and create a pronounced shift in momentum. Surely, the Brave Old Army Team was going to slump its shoulders and allow some quick touchdown marches, digging itself a 21-7 hole late in the second or early in the third quarter. It was just going to be a matter of time.
Except it wasn't.
Despite all the gifts they received in the first three quarters, the Scarlet Knights of Rutgers could not – and would not – run away and hide. Coach Kyle Flood's offense was anemic and impotent, straitjacketed by Army's defense and especially the Black Knights' front seven. Rutgers didn't commit huge mistakes, but it continued to meekly surrender possession after each emotional boost it temporarily received. The Scarlet Knights did not build on the clutch plays made by their field goal blocking unit or their defense. They punctured their own balloon in the first three quarters, deflating their own hopes the way USC student managers deflate a football. Army was the team that kept creating scoring chances. Army was the team that continued to move the ball. Army was the team that, in the first three quarters, owned most of the real estate on the field and dealt better with failure. If your mind had gone through three or four cycles of thinking, "Well, Rutgers will surely break through NOW," you might have entered the fourth quarter thinking to yourself, "I've thought so long that Rutgers will finally break through, but is that actually going to happen?"
Only then, in the fourth and final stanza, did the floodgates open. A 21-point fourth quarter drowned Army in the kind of tidal wave that Navy has used many times against the Black Knights over the past decade. Army would carry the play and control the fight for two, two and a half, or three quarters, only to cede psychological and territorial leverage in the final, fateful stretch of regulation time.
Think about the economy of consistency this way: If Army had generated half the scoring chances (a scoring chance defined as bringing the ball within field goal range, roughly the opponent's 35-yard line…) it actually did create on Saturday but finished them, the Black Knights would have led by a 17-7 or 21-7 score in the third quarter. Merely converting on some of its more promising drives, not all of them, would have served the Black Knights well. However, Army achieved that other kind of consistency: always moving the ball yet never finalizing a drive. In other words, the Black Knights' consistency was misdirected. It's not that they lacked consistency; they manifested it in a low-point and result-poor manner.
Coaches would naturally want their offense to perform well on every drive, but with the Navy game now under a month away, perhaps Ellerson will need to tell his team the following: "Boys, I don't need you to excel all the time, but on the occasions when you crack the opponent's 35, please walk away with something tangible to show for it." Army has lost so many important (Navy) games over the years precisely because it didn't follow this line of advice. Add this Rutgers loss to the tally.
Hopefully, Dec. 8 will tell a different story, with this game offering the lesson that finally enables the Black Knights to cross the threshold.
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