We discussed this, did we not?
After the noble "almost win" against Penn State, there was a definite need to credit the Army football team for all the ways in which it simultaneously improved and showed diverse elements of a football team which seemed to be growing into a new and more expanded set of capabilities. Being able to thrive in a high-scoring game one week and then stand up to Penn State on the road a week later in a defensive slugfest offered a sign of hope to a team that had clearly grown since the opening-night loss to Fordham. Not recognizing growth -- and not giving credit to players and coaches for demonstrating it -- doesn't seem to be the least bit constructive.
The counterbalance, of course, was mentioned as well: Don't go overboard in praising a performance which didn't quite attain ultimate victory in Happy Valley, The forward step needed to be sustained and built upon the next week against Duke.
Army had begun to move past the rough first weeks of its season. Seeing Connecticut thump UCF over the weekend should make the Black Knights feel better about themselves, but word of Wake Forest's 3-0 win over Boston College will only reinforce the idea that Army let the Demon Deacons get off easy. No matter -- when Army put together quality efforts against Eastern Michigan and then Penn State, the character of this group had changed for the time being. Life is a combination of stasis and movement, a constant collection and accumulation of experiences that leave us stuck, in a state of regression, or in a state of progression.
The past two weeks were definitely marked by progress more than anything else. Yet, as was painstakingly clarified, the real importance of the journey being made by Army was that it needed to continue in the right direction. Such a trajectory was going to be the surest sign that what happened against EMU and especially Penn State would become real indicators of where this team could go in 2015.
Now, that hope -- that particular idea -- is so much fine powder.
Army went along for a few weeks, unmistakably growing in confidence and polishing its approach to gameday situations. The Black Knights had almost forgotten what it felt like -- not to lose, but to lose in a way which carried a strong dose of discouragement. Being able to stack together consecutive weeks without that profound feeling of disappointment can make a team forget in a good way. Focus becomes second nature; self-doubt decreases; and a team finds its beating heart.
Instead, against Duke, Army could only recall previous games from the early half of September. "Oh, I remember what that (awful feeling) felt like," the Black Knights must be saying right now.
It's why moral victories need to lead to real victories before too long. We all want to constantly evolve, to advance, to stake out rarely-claimed territory (in this case, the terrain known as triumph), but life experience tells us that on some days, we regress and retreat. We are brought back to places which are familiar, but not in a good way.
Duke brought Army to that place, and the Black Knights couldn't make their way out of it -- not on Saturday. They'll need to wait a week to show they can do so when they face Bucknell.
It's not as though Jeff Monken and the rest of the coaching staff didn't begin this game with an aggressive approach. Army went for first downs in unconventional locations on the field. Monken knew full well that giving the ball to the Blue Devils wasn't going to solve his team's problems. Keeping the ball away was the answer, and early fourth-down decisions reflected that. It was encouraging to see the staff recognize the nature of the moment, and when coaches challenge their players to succeed by giving them pressure-packed situations to conquer, a team can grow up very quickly.
Instead, Duke's defense, which is extremely quick off its blocks and plays with a fluid awareness that manifests sound teaching, landed the first few blows of this game. Not just stopping Army, but doing so in high-leverage situations, set the tone for the whole day. The Blue Devils fed off those early stops and specifically felt they could pulverize Army at the line of scrimmage. That's exactly what they proceeded to do, limiting Army under 170 total yards and under 60 yards rushing, The 2.3 yards-per-play average was reflective of the extent to which Duke controlled the line of scrimmage all day long. When the point of attack is that clogged and the passing game isn't a credible threat (and quarterback A.J. Schurr gets injured), there's no real Plan B, no viable alternative. By the latter stages of the second quarter, the game was a blowout, Duke has established that it was just about untouchable, and the rest was just second-half window dressing.
This was a far cry from Eastern Michigan and Penn State. It was also a reminder of the short shelf life moral victories possess.
The Black Knights obviously have a lot to study on film in this game alone, but it might help them to study the Penn State and Duke games in tandem at this point. Realizing not only what failed against Duke, but what went right against the Nittany Lions, should give this team more of a roadmap in its attempt to figure things out.
Learning from the things one does poorly is an essential coping skill. What gets overlooked at times is the need to learn from what one does correctly. That's just as powerful a teaching tool, and if blended with film study of this Duke contest, perhaps Army could unearth some epiphanies that will create a better scheme and plan in the weeks to come.
Had you forgotten what it felt like to lose in a way that offers no real silver lining? Army was reminded of the feeling on Saturday, but maybe this piercing agony is what will create a longer and more sustained period of productivity as the 2015 season hits its midpoint.