A week after getting absolutely obliterated by Houston… which came a week after getting crushed by TCU… which came a week after East Carolina clobbered the heck out of them… Army's defense made a stand and did the cadets proud for the first 35 minutes of the contest, limiting Alabama-Birmingham to a single touchdown and building a 19-7 lead in the process.
Yes, after surrendering 59 points to ECU at the beginning of October, 46 to TCU the following week, and then 56 to Houston last week, it seemed as though raising a white flag—and conducting team prayers that UAB quarterback Darrell Hackney would simply misfire—represented the best and most judicious military strategy for the Black Knights of the Hudson.
Yet, for two-plus quarters, the Long Gray Line in the stands watched the Black Knights become a Long Black Wall, containing and confusing Hackney and the rest of UAB's sputtering offense. Army had the Blazers outfoxed and on the run, all while Cadet flanker Aris Comeaux put together a great two-touchdown day with a 9-yard scoring catch and an electrifying 88-yard romp to paydirt on a punt return.
When you consider how much Nebraska's famed "Blackshirt Defense" has struggled this season, it amazingly but genuinely looked as though Army's much-maligned defense was transforming into a group of undersized but oh-so-gallant blackshirts in West Point, a citadel and cradle of gallantry the world over.
A first win in the 2002 season, and a first conference win at that, looked to be in sight.
That was the proper journalistic outlook on things, but the problem was and is that the Army players, instead of fighting on to the end, took a peek at the scoreboard, realized winning was a possibility, and woke up from their state of total focus and concentration. Somebody pinched them and pulled them out of their Zen-like mindset, which had both units—especially the defense—locked into that performer's calm, the zone, that condition of totally confident and supremely fluid athleticism on display.
Army's grit and instinctiveness on defense in the first 35 minutes on Saturday was so remarkably superior to anything else the defense has served up this year. It was a beautiful thing to behold. When you pull out clutch wins in football, however, that kind of effort and focus can't last just 35 minutes, especially when you're a cellar-dweller like Army. No, effort has to last the full 60 minutes, and on this Saturday, it didn't.
Hackney came alive for the Blazers from Birmingham, heating up with his passing game and continuously finding favorite target Willie Quinnie. The UAB flanker snared 12 passes for 159 yards on the day, but more importantly, he caught the big passes whenever UAB needed a huge play… which, on the flip side of the equation, was whenever Army needed that one… final… elusive… defensive stand, the last stand it never got.
Sure enough, after Josh Holden scored on a two-yard touchdown run to put the Black Knights of the Hudson into the lead with a buck-twenty-nine left to play in the game, Hackney, Quinnie and the Blazers (sounds like a country band, dunnit?) promptly answered with their own military march down the field, culminating in Quinnie's third touchdown catch of the game, a 20-yard grab with eight seconds, eight little ticks remaining on the Michie Stadium clock. 29-26 UAB. A gallant effort, but a broken dream for a devastated bunch of hard-working Cadets who just couldn't seal the deal.
The amazing thing, though, for this Army team is that, on the heels of this inspired performance, the boys of West Point can point to their next game, at Air Force on Nov. 9, as a chance to increase their level of determination and focus. With a 60-minute effort, instead of a two-and-a-half quarter effort, the Black Knights of the Hudson can, in their two Commander in Chief Trophy games, max out and get the full defensive effort they're looking for.
Furthermore, the Cadets—who smothered UAB's running game to the tune of just 56 yards—will be facing an Air Force team that can't throw the pigskin. More stout run defense, and who the heck knows what could happen in Colorado Springs? More heroics from Comeaux, and Army will stay in ballgames, against Air Force and anyone else.
They haven't won a game yet this season. In spite of that, however, Army can still set its sights on the Commander in Chief Trophy.
Ain't service academy football a beautiful thing? A heartbreaking loss like the one against UAB can actually serve as a hopeful springboard to something better, instead of a crushing end to the home slate of games at Michie.
As the song says, "Fight on, brave Army team!"
If the boys fight on for 60 complete minutes, good things will indeed happen. Saturday's loss to the Blazers proved as much.
And since Army will be away from Michie for the rest of the year, the team only needs to remember that, in an _expression Beano Cook would probably use, "military teams should win on the road, because they always play on the road. World War II was a road game, right?"
Dwight Eisenhower, a West Point footballer himself, would agree. Grit knoweth all battlefields. Such is the battlecry for a heartbroken, but not beaten, bunch of Cadets.