The Fine (Long Gray) Line

Yes, Rutgers outclassed Army on a soggy Friday night at Michie Stadium. Given sixty minutes of play, the Scarlet Knights were likely to eventually flex their muscles before the end of the proceedings. But before you dismiss this game as the rout it became, give a closer look: the Black Knights' defense put forth another superb showing.

In the first half, when this "Battle of the Knights" was still competitive, the traditional financial terminology had been switched around: the Scarlet Knights were in the black, and the Black Knights were bleeding red ink. However, for all of Rutgers' profits, one has to remember (if you watched the national ESPN2 broadcast) that this pigskin equivalent of a balance sheet was created by Army giving Rutgers its profits, instead of making the boys from New Jersey earn each piece of scoreboard real estate. The visitors gained 14 of their 24 first-half points from Army special teams miscues, as a blocked punt and a muffed punt return handed a pair of touchdowns to Greg Schiano's ballclub. After Josh Mitchell's pick-six gave Army a huge shot in the arm, Stan Brock's punting teams (coverage and return alike) shot down the hopes held by the home folks. Two huge mistakes at the worst possible moments gave the Black Knights of the Hudson another loss. Meanwhile, the boys from the banks of the Old Raritan hit a high-water mark on a rainy night in West Point.

The story is as powerful as it is simple: while the final scoreboard margin was substantial, the elimination of a few untimely gaffes would have made this game competitive for 60 minutes, or at least 50. Army's defense conceded just one legitimate touchdown in this game's competitive phase, just one sustained touchdown drive while the score was still close. Whenever Rutgers and star running back Ray Rice came at Army's front seven in the first half, the Black Knights competed admirably, so much so that an exhausted gang of eleven still held the Scarlet Knights out of the end zone just before halftime. Even while staying on the field for an absurdly high percentage of snaps in the first 30 minutes, the black-shirted members of Army's defense held the fort in an incredibly impressive display. Don't let the scoreboard fool you: this defense acquitted itself quite well on a night when it received absolutely no help from the other two units on the Army roster (sound familiar?).

The heroics of Army's defense--even in a downer of a defeat amidst a downpour of rain--must be given sufficient attention, not just to credit those fine young men defending the goal line (and who will soon defend our country), but to point out that there's a fine line between winning and losing... even by a bunch of points.

Schiano, the Rutgers coach, said as much about his own team, which is now bowl-eligible (at 6-4) but has still experienced a noticeably disappointing season in Piscataway. Sean McDonough of ESPN2 noted that in production meetings during the week, Schiano said that "There's not much of a difference between 11-2 and 5-4." Rutgers' joyride in 2006 occurred simply because the Scarlet Knights didn't make huge mistakes in major moments. This year, an epidemic of dropped passes and untimely (and slight) lapses has caused Rutgers to fail at crunch time against relatively equal opposition. A handful of plays in key situations is the only thing that has separated an incredibly good season (2006) from an unfulfilling one (2007). And even then, Rutgers is still headed to a bowl game; the Black Knights would love to have the Scarlet Knights' problems right now.

So take heart, Army fans: this defense--despite what the scoreboard might suggest--played extremely well on Friday night against bowl-bound Rutgers. The line between winning and losing is a fine one; Army--like so many other college football teams--is never too far from being on the right side of that line. Small movements--and more specifically, small improvements--could enable Army to have Rutgers' problems in 2008 or 2009: namely, being 6-4 and almost certainly headed for a bowl.


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