If only the Army football team could have lined up as properly on defense. With a little more order—and fewer violations of football's laws—the Black Knights might have pushed Navy more severely in the 105th staging of an American classic.
In the first 20 minutes from the City of Brotherly Love, Army stood toe to toe with its football foe from Annapolis. Army's undersized defensive front got much needed help from their linebacking brethren, as the Cadets' front seven repeatedly stuffed Navy fullback Kyle Eckel each and every time the Midshipmen gave him the ball. By taking away the fullback—the lynch pin to any triple option attack—Army was setting itself up for success in Bobby Ross's first game against Navy as the West Point coach.
But then, just when Army was hanging in the game from a physical standpoint, discipline—of all things—came back to bite the Black Knights in the backside. Precisely when Army was about to force Navy's offense into a third and long situation, an offsides penalty—from lining up in the neutral zone, of all things—gave Navy a much more manageable down and distance scenario deep in Army territory. Shortly afterward, Aaron Polanco broke a scoreless tie and put the Black Knights in a hole.
In a game where it was vital to have a good start and generate confidence against the bowl-bound rival from Annapolis, it was nothing other than Army's inability to line up properly on defense that led to Navy's crucial opening score. With better discipline, Army could have repeatedly forced the Midshipmen to do what they don't do well: kick field goals.
After a great goal-line stand in the first quarter, Army forced Navy kicker Geoff Blumenfeld to enter the game. In an eerily familiar repeat of the 1993 Army-Navy Game, Blumenfeld, just like a former Navy kicker named Ryan Bucchianieri, missed a short field goal from a severe right-hashmark angle, keeping the kick wide right. After this momentum-booster, Army had a chance to break the ice first. Unfortunately, Zac Dahman and the rest of the Black Knights' offense couldn't generate any passing plays to supplement the tough early running of Carlton Jones.
However, with the offense stalling, Army still had the ability to lean on its defense to stay close. And from a physical standpoint, coordinator John Mumford's crew was clearly ready to tackle Eckel and put the brakes on Navy's ground game. If the Black Knights could have repeatedly forced Navy drives to stall in the red zone, there's no telling how many field goals would have either been missed by Blumenfeld, or eschewed by Navy coach Paul Johnson in favor of necessary fourth-down gambles. Long story short, making clutch stops in the red zone—and being situationally strong—was all Army needed to do to stay competitive for 60 minutes against the Midshipmen.
But thanks to their improper formations on defense, the Long Gray Line became the Wrong Gray Line, and it turned the game on a dime. Once Polanco broke the ice to put Navy up 7-0, the floodgates opened, as Navy's talent—now unleashed by the emotional relief of scoring first—took its toll on an overwhelmed Army team whose own emotional tank ran on empty. Polanco—tentative before his touchdown—started throwing the ball with pizzazz and making better decisions. Dahman, on the other hand, started pressing against a Navy defense that zoned in on the Black Knights' passing game. The pick-six Dahman threw to Navy's Josh Smith—which probably cemented the victory for the Midshipmen—was a perfect example.
Discipline let down Army on Saturday. It's kinda hard to believe, but it's true. Sure, the two wins achieved this year will make 2004 a substantial step forward for West Point football. But for now, getting pasted by Navy… again… offers little joy. If next year is to be any different, then, Army can't commit seven penalties for 65 yards, which was exactly what the Black Knights did on Saturday in Philadelphia. Without discipline, the necessary talent upgrade needed to make Army football more competitive won't add up to much in the end.