The Emptiness That Won't Hurt
There are times when a given sporting event says so much about a team and its season. A 60-minute Saturday sojourn can reveal the heart of a winner, the inherent weaknesses of a loser, or the maddening inconsistency of an in-between ballclub that can't decide on an identity or personality.
For Army's football forces, Saturday's blowout loss to Temple at Michie Stadium didn't fit into any of those categories or descriptions. This wasn't a defining moment. This wasn't even a telltale indication of the Black Knights' evolution over the past two and a half months. This was the kind of game whose film should be thrown into the trash. Rich Ellerson should tell his team and his staff to wipe it from the memory banks and move on.
Consider the progression of Army in 2012, and then realize the circumstances under which this game against Temple was played: First of all, Army was an absolute mess in September. The Black Knights' defense regularly hemorrhaged in 1-2-3 fashion against San Diego State, Northern Illinois, and Wake Forest. The Black Knights seemed to be a few steps behind each opposing offense they faced. Only when they played an FCS team (Stony Brook) did the defense begin to catch up, and on that afternoon in West Point, the offense – which had pulled its weight against Northern Illinois and Wake – fell apart.
This team has come a long way since its nightmarish September. The deceptive part about Army's 2-9 record is that the scoreboard results won't reflect the progress Ellerson has made with his players. Army's 31-17 loss to Kent State, for instance, doesn't look that bad now that the Golden Flashes are 10-1 with a division championship in hand. The 30-22 loss to Ball State doesn't look that bad after the Cardinals whacked Ohio this past week to earn their eighth win of 2012. Army's loss to Rutgers looks better now that the Scarlet Knights will be playing for a BCS bowl on Nov. 29, the result of a gritty win at Cincinnati.
To develop this point a little further, Army's defense had played only one particularly bad game since the 49-37 loss at Wake Forest on Sept. 22. That stinker came on Oct. 20 in a 48-38 loss to Eastern Michigan. For the most part, this defense – undersized and under-resourced – has kept the Black Knights in games. To underscore the notion that scoreboard results have not accurately measured the improvement of the Black Knights this year, especially on defense, it's worth realizing that the 28-7 loss to Rutgers was probably the team's best defensive performance all year. The win over Air Force is the only other game that belongs in such a discussion. Results and progress can be two different things, and such has been the case for Ellerson's athletes in 2012.
Let's bring the focus back to this tussle with Temple. Saturday's 31-point loss did not represent a natural continuation of 2012's post-September patterns. Agonizing losses over the past month usually stemmed from an untimely offensive lapse, specifically a wrong turn inside an opponent's 30-yard line. This loss could not be attributed to the offense. When the Brave Old Army Team scored, Temple responded with seven points. This game trend was established in the second quarter and then affirmed in both the third and fourth stanzas. Temple running back Montel Harris, the transfer from Boston College who has proven himself as a meal-ticket ballcarrier over an extended period of time, constantly asked questions that Army's defense could not answer. The defense seen the week before in Piscataway, N.J., the defense that stood up to Air Force's ground game, was not in evidence.
It is at this point that one must appreciate the circumstances under which this game was played… circumstances that did not exist five years ago.
It's only been in the past few years that the Army-Navy Game has been moved back a week to create a three-week buffer between the first 11 games of the regular season and the venerable college football classic on CBS television. This separation between the 11 "normal" games and Army-Navy makes Army-Navy a stand-alone game, almost a bowl game played in early December.
This final game in the stretch of 11 "normal" games is always very difficult, not because Navy is the next opponent, but because the awareness of a three-week break can play with the human mind and its desire to gain respite before an event that means the world to its participants. Army did a lot of heavy lifting to improve itself over the past month, with the Air Force win offering a tangible reward for the team's efforts. The Rutgers game was so close to delivering yet another shiny prize to the Black Knights, but their inability to finish drives dealt them a defeat that abruptly changed the mood in and around the locker room. Surely, Ellerson told his team to gather its focus and make one more attempt on a "normal" Saturday. Surely, the coaching staff made the attempt to pick up their players for one more climb up the mountain, but clearly, the past month of pushing left this team drained and subconsciously ready for a break. That subconscious reality aided a Temple team that had plainly not demonstrated a similar level of potency at any prior point in 2012.
No, this loss was not representative of the 2012 season for Army. This was not an indictment of persistent failings… because the failings seen in this game did not persist throughout the season.
Burn the game film. Don't look for answers. Enjoy Thanksgiving and the weekend of recuperation. Make room for other non-football activities and pursuits. Take a break.
Just be ready to play for – and win – the Commander-In-Chief's Trophy on the eighth day of December.
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