Army's Ax to Grind

After a disappointing loss to the Air Force Academy in a Commander-in-Chief Trophy game, the Army Black Knights could be forgiven for dragging their heads.

If you told Bobby Ross that his team would lead by one at the half and then surrender just 10 second-half points, he'd have taken that scenario in a heartbeat. The fact that Ross' team was presented with that very situation makes the 31-22 setback all the more difficult to take. It would be dishonest to say this game hurt a little bit more than other Cadet losses this season. The primary reason is the Commander-in-Chief Trophy. But even beyond that prestigious piece of hardware, the broader football reason for the sick sadness in the Army camp is the fact that this team, after two brilliant second halves against Cincinnati and South Florida--two teams who, by the way, scored hugely impressive victories over the weekend--has so clearly regressed in its ability to play quality football in the second halves of games.

A week earlier, the Black Knights just didn't come out of the gate in the third quarter with extra sharpness against East Carolina, and the Pirates made them pay down the stretch. The Army team that went into the locker room at halftime came out on the field a poorer team in the second half, unable to implement the adjustments made by Bobby Ross and his staff. This development, after the sensational second-half performances against the Bearcats and Bulls, had to mystify Boss Ross. Against Air Force--back in the cozy confines of Michie Stadium on the banks of the Hudson--things were supposed to be different.

Yet, after getting bageled throughout the second half, it's clear that the Black Knights find themselves in much the same place they were after the disheartening home loss to TCU, a game where the Cadets bolted ahead very early but then lost their winning edge as the game continued. Sustaining momentum and finding a healthy consistency are extraordinarily crucial in the momentum-based cauldron that college football is. Army lacked it for the first four games of the 2004 season, then found it dramatically in two huge wins. Now, once again, the Black Knights are looking for second-half answers.

As disappointing as this loss is--and the sting won't fade away anytime soon--what the Cadets can do is to remember this game, and to particularly retain the memory of how hard Air Force fought to win this game. When the Falcons, at 3-5 and in dire need of a season-changing win, stepped onto the field in the second half, there was a noticeable spike in intensity among the visitors from Colorado Springs. Air Force raised its level of play, a by-product of a desire to win that was, quite frankly, deeper than Army's hunger for victory. You can't give up 22 first-half points and then pitch a second-half shutout unless you really dig deep. Air Force--to its everlasting credit--dug in deep, and Army--instead of sulking--would do well to recall how you win a grinder.

Winning a grinder--it's the one missing achievement for the Cadets this season. Army's two wins were feel-good rides--hard-earned, but built on the back of a handful of huge, game-breaking plays. The Black Knights used an avalanche of big plays and big gainers to run away from Cincinnati in West Point, and then roll up the points in Tampa against South Florida. On the other hand, this Air Force game--much like the TCU game--witnessed a contest in which yards and points became increasingly difficult to come by in a hard-fought second half. The Falcons--much like the Horned Frogs a month earlier--found the ability to grind out a win against Army, even when some phases of their game weren't clicking on all cylinders. It's precisely this ability that the Black Knights will need to cultivate next season, and the good news is that learning by experience will enable Bobby Ross to make his team that much more resilient in the future.

But while the future holds more and more promise, the losses--the disappointments in the heat of battle--still eat away at the program, particularly Ross. Hopefully, the sting of setbacks such as Saturday's loss to Air Force will feed and fuel a more motivated team that can re-learn the ability to close out games in style.

Air Force QB Adam Fitch runs for a touchdown past Army's Trey Landry (AP/Tim Rosk) Top Stories