Instead of taking a big step on the road to a 6-6 or possibly 7-5 season, the Black Knights lost.
It was more than that, however. Far more than the mere result (an L instead of a W) has to frustrate Jeff Monken and every single person in the Army locker room.
The truly agonizing element of Saturday's 35-18 defeat -- technically, at the hands of North Texas -- is that it so clearly came at the hands of the Black Knights themselves. More precisely -- and this sentence REALLY hurts to write -- Army unleashed all the demons and bugaboos and unaffordably bad habits of the past five seasons, the expensive inclinations which have kept this program out of a bowl game since the breakthrough authored in 2010.
I have interacted with college football fans for roughly 15 years as a paid writer who has to demonstrate accountability for one's words and arguments. One thing I learned very early on in the football analysis business is that the raw number of plays won (the word "won" can be flexibly used, but analysts could probably agree on what it means relative to a given situation in a large majority of cases) doesn't matter as a determinant of team quality if that team commits a large number of gigantic mistakes. Small mistakes are one thing, but huge errors are another matter altogether.
Last year, Boise State amassed 40 first downs to 11 for New Mexico. The Broncos outgained the Lobos by 228 yards. They committed 12 fewer penalties. They also lost, because they committed two more turnovers, and -- this is important -- committed turnovers which allowed New Mexico to score with short fields. The Lobos produced scoring "drives" of just 7 and 30 yards, good for 10 points in a 31-24 final.
Did Boise State outplay New Mexico? In terms of the pure number of individual scrimmage plays in which the Broncos were better, yes... but how much does that or should that mean? Boise State made more large-scale mistakes, and New Mexico converted more opportunities.
Sometimes one team outplays another but still loses. A good example: Team A steadily marches downfield for two field goal drives of 80 yards. Team B, on third and 19 from its own 27, gets a 73-yard touchdown pass due to a crazy double-deflection which falls into an unintended receiver's hands near the play.
The key insight: The team which loses (7-6) didn't really do much wrong on its drives, just not enough to land a kill shot. The team which wins gets its decisive (or larger amount of) points from luck, without the opposing team making a mistake. Under that basic set of circumstances, a team can lose while outplaying its opponent
The Boise-New Mexico example does not fit into that category. Boise State made more -- and far worse -- mistakes. So what if it gained 29 more first downs and 228 more yards? It didn't play well enough to win.
This brings us back to Army and North Texas.
Army hit the 300-yard mark on the ground. Army outgained UNT. Army converted FIVE fourth downs. Army had a time-of-possession advantage of nearly 15 minutes and converted nine more first downs. Along the lines of "How many total snaps were won by each team?", Army got the nod... but to what effect?
When a team wins (say) 20 to 25 more snaps but commits seven turnovers -- as Army did against the Mean Green -- the severity of mistakes doesn't allow the Black Knights to say that they outplayed North Texas. Yes, Army's three scoring drives all lasted at least 5:20, meaning that West Point collected a lot of "won snaps," but North Texas got a pick-six, a 56-yard run, a 41-yard run, and a 34-yard pass. Those four plays trump the best 15-play, 80-yard touchdown march over the course of 60 minutes.
The humorous but regret-soaked summation of Saturday is that "except for 10 really big mistakes (the seven turnovers and three UNT chunk plays on offense), Army played great."
There were 138 scrimmage plays in this game. There is no dispute that Army did better in a majority of them. However, when 10 of the losing plays are absolute disasters, 70 good plays which have a relatively minor impact on a game cease to pack a punch.
This is a nightmare game, in many ways a good afternoon wasted.
The only good news: This didn't happen against Air Force or Navy, opponents against which this very dynamic has at times existed in recent years.
If Army really does tighten up, to the point that it can win a majority of snaps AND not commit those seven to 10 disastrous mistakes, it just might win the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy... and capture the winning season which just got jeopardized by this clunker against North Texas.