Army Fordham Review: Bad Timing, Worse Result

If 88 percent of life is showing up, what about the other 12%? Army showed up for its season opener last Friday against Fordham, and played well in spots. The ultimate source of Army West Point's undoing was that the spots in which it didn't play well were the most important points in the game. Improvement is necessary; improvement in urgent moments is even more essential for the Black Knights.


If, as former Army and Red Blaik assistant coach Vince Lombardi said, “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing,” timing is the source of the only thing. It sure feels like everything in many of the sporting events we watch, and for the teams we care about.

The centrality of timing was certainly affirmed in a powerful – and lamentably frustrating – way for the Army football team in its 2015 season opener last Friday night at Michie Stadium.

Others here at ArmySports.com and elsewhere in the region have already offered more technical observations on the Black Knights’ failings and deficiencies against an FCS opponent it should have been able to beat. Other analysts will point out the finer details of specific missed assignments or isolated shortcomings in terms of not getting off blocks. Other pundits in the Northeast and across the country will pounce on the fact that this team’s defensive and special teams units did not react swiftly enough to broken plays such as the unintended two-point conversion (following a botched hold) which served as the difference in this contest.

Those explorations and conversations are necessary, and they form central parts of a larger discussion of Army football after one very disappointing weekend. Instead of piggybacking on those points, it’s worth carving out one very specific piece of ground in the aftermath of a 37-35 loss. It’s something coaches can talk about until they’re blue in the face, but it’s ultimately something only players can apply in the cauldron of gameday pressure.

While Army’s players try to brush up on technique, form and structure, and on all the other X-and-O considerations they’ll need to address when they hit the practice field this week, there’s something about the Fordham loss which – in a certain way and to a certain degree – transcends questions of gap responsibility, lane integrity, blocking angles, and all the technical things Jeff Monken will impart to his players over the next few days. That topic is, in a word, timing.

Army’s sense of timing was all wrong on Friday, which is ultimately why this loss occurred.

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Week one of a college football season is definitely a time when mistakes are going to occur. No one was expecting Army to simply stride onto the field in West Point and unfurl a clean and convincing performance free of blemish or imperfection against Fordham. This is a program immersed in a rebuilding process, and it’s widely understood that Monken and his staff did not enter a quick-fix situation. Sure, progress was made last season, especially in light of the sterling defensive performance put forth in the Navy game. However, expecting Army to immediately pick up where it left off was – if not out of the question – probably unrealistic.

What will naturally – and rightly, I might add – concern Army fans after this game is that the dropoff on the defensive side of the ball was so precipitous relative to that Navy game in 2014. However, adjustments and attrition on a roster reshuffle the deck and almost invariably involve a process of starting over. Army should never have been expected to stroll past Fordham. Such a view would have flown in the face of what this program has tried – and failed – to achieve the past several seasons.

Imperfections, even glaring flaws, were to be expected. The problem? These shortcomings were never more abundant or visible than in the moments when Army needed to be better. That is the central truth of Friday night’s loss.

It is, for me, the single most searing indictment of this team’s performance on Friday, the kind of thing Army football has not been able to solve in the years since the magical 2010 season: Simply stated, Army could not play well on defense against Fordham when it needed to. It’s that simple.

By all means, note the failures of technique or precision or other fundamentals of football at its most granular level. By all means, point out the need for the coaches to do better. Yet, it’s not as though Army didn’t do a lot of really good things in this game. The passing game was better than it has been in quite some time at West Point. The idea that Army couldn’t make a comeback with its aerial attack was refuted by the late drive which scored a touchdown and almost tied the game.

On defense, the Black Knights – after giving up 27 first-half points – allowed only one scoring march. This team did make appropriate and effective halftime adjustments. Problems were dealt with. Progress could plainly be seen on the field. It’s easy to think of a season opener as a time when only the offenses struggle, but that can be just as true for defenses. On Friday, Army did absorb that nightmarish first half, but instead of continuing to descend into a state of panic and dissolve into a puddle of mush, the defense rallied, showing that it is capable of playing better and that the coaching staff is capable of creating improvement.

However, this is where the centrality of timing comes into play.

Even though Army allowed only one scoring drive in the second half, it came right after the Black Knights scored a touchdown to tie the game at 29-all. If you go through the entirety of this game, you will notice that after the first four of Army’s five touchdowns, Fordham scored a touchdown. The Rams didn’t need to score after Army’s final touchdown (and subsequent failure on the tying 2-point try), so that doesn’t really count as a defensive stop for the Black Knights. Essentially, this defense failed to get a stop after each time the offense scored.

When one thinks of a shutdown inning in baseball – keeping the opposition scoreless after your team ties the score with a three-run rally – the purpose is to sustain momentum and not allow your one step forward to immediately be canceled out by one or two steps backward.

Friday night, Army simply couldn’t escape that “one step forward, one step back” pattern. When the offense did something good, the defense could not consolidate that gain. When the defense began to play well in the second half, the offense slowed down and couldn’t wrest control of the game from the Rams.

What hurts the most is that while the defense failed only once in the second half, that failure came after an Army touchdown, and at a time when the outcome of the game hung squarely in the balance. Timing – beyond technique – was the true source and center of Army’s failure to win. The coaches – as poorly as they might have performed – did generate some forward movements in the second half, but the one time Army really needed to stand taller was the time its improving defense became smaller.

Only players can find it within themselves to respond to moments. Coaches will tell them they need to respond, but only the players can author the response.

We’ll see how Army handles the pressure of gameday in week two and, for that matter, the rest of this 2015 season.

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