Academy Review: Week Seven
SOME MOMENTS ARE BIGGER THAN OTHERS
The past week in the world of service academy football was one extended case study on the topic of timeliness. There are moments when any football team can afford to make a mistake, and there are moments when slip-ups simply can't occur. Army stood on the right side of this divide, while Navy and Air Force fell off the fence and into the wrong side of town. The Midshipmen and Falcons were devoured by opponents and the football fates alike.
Army's win over Eastern Michigan was safely tucked away by means of a 21-point third-quarter surge, but the stage for the Black Knights' conquest of the Eagles was set at the end of the first half. Leading 22-15, Army wanted to walk to its locker room at halftime with the knowledge that its labors over the course of 30 minutes had amounted to something. EMU, though, mounted a 14-play drive that brought the ball to the Army 14. At that moment, Army's Hayden Pierce delivered a timely pass break-up on third and 10 to thwart the Eagles in the red zone. All told, Eastern Michigan's 16-play foray resulted in only three points. Army had a four-point lead (22-18), which felt so much better than a flat-footed tie.
At the start of the second half, Army took the good vibes created by that red-zone stand and translated them into more production. A 71-yard touchdown drive is a good thing at any point in a football competition, but Army's ability to forge a sustained scoring march at that stage of Saturday's game put EMU on the ropes. When the Eagles fumbled in the Black Knights' red zone on their next drive and Army's Terry Baggett then scooted 96 yards for a touchdown a short while later, the day was done.
So were the Eagles.
Succeeding at the right time made Army's day so much easier and more enjoyable than it otherwise would have been. Seizing on pressure points – and being the team that profits from them, not the team that feels the wrong end of a gut-punch – had to feel so immensely pleasurable for Rich Ellerson, his staff, and his players.
For the coaches and players at Navy and Air Force, the feeling was the exact opposite.
Turnovers never help, but the mistakes Navy made against Duke were particularly damaging. Quarterback Keenan Reynolds fumbled inside the Duke 10-yard line inside the final 20 seconds of the first half, with Duke leading by a 14-7 score. The proximity to the halftime intermission lent extra weight to that sequence. Duke filled its tank with belief while Navy trudged to the locker room in a shaken state. Yes, teams must play through adversity, but these are 20-year-old male members of the human species. The impact of plays is felt on a deep, emotional, bones-and-marrow level. Red-zone turnovers in the final minute of a half? That's something Navy has profited from over the years against Army. The Midshipmen got a taste of their own medicine against Duke… and this doesn't even count the missed field goal earlier in the first half, after a false start wiped out a field goal that ESPN's ticker/crawl had already posted in Navy's column (but later rescinded). Tipping-point mistakes led to a seven-point showing against a Duke defense that couldn't contain Troy, Pittsburgh, or Georgia Tech.
For Air Force, the Falcons' situational breakdown came on defense, not offense.
All the Falcons had to do was stop one play. San Diego State's kicking game had been an adventure on Thursday night. A missed 37-yard field goal and a blocked extra point enabled Air Force to take a one-point lead into the final two minutes of regulation. San Diego State was likely to score on a sustained march deep into AFA territory, but with 1:45 left, the Falcons had the opportunity to force SDSU to make a pressure-packed field goal. All Air Force had to do was stop one running play from the 10.
The Falcons couldn't. A missed tackle at the 5-yard line, followed by an inability to make a strong, direction-stopping tackle at the 1, enabled the Aztecs to avoid a field goal, and the play obviously denied Air Force the ability to win with a field goal on its subsequent drive. The Falcons reached the Aztecs' side of the field and could have been much more patient in a 22-20 game. Trailing 27-20, however, forced AFA's offense to take the kinds of chances that normally don't lead to optimal results.
Timing is everything in sports. Imperfection is part of the deal and cannot be eluded on a permanent basis. You can make all sorts of mistakes; moreover, this being an enterprise of human beings, you WILL make all sorts of mistakes. However, you can't make them in all sorts of moments. Army learned this lesson in a happy way, while Navy and Air Force learned this lesson amidst a darkened day on the gridiron.
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