When a winless football team takes the field, the biggest challenge is a mental one. Whenever adversity strikes, or whenever pressure looms, it's easy to have the slightest bit of frustration, or indecision, or panic, or any other less-than-fully-focused reaction to one's surroundings. It's this lack of focus on a single play that can make all the difference in the world.
Two weeks ago, then, as the Black Knights played their first November game, they played really hard in a spirited game against fellow service academy Air Force. For 95 percent of all of Air Force's offensive plays, the Cadets were extremely sound on defense, and especially in the front seven. The West Point footballers contained the dynamic option attack of Chance Harridge, one of the best players in the country.
But on a handful of plays, Army lost focus, didn't stay home, didn't follow its keys and lane or gap assignments, and got smoked for a long touchdown. A few distracted plays, without full focus, came back to burn Army with a vengeance. The huge key entering the Tulane game was for the Army defense to gain a discipline that would complement their emergent play-after-play run-stuffing. In addition to winning a high percentage of the battles up front, Army needed to shore up that continuous dominance with sound reactions from the secondary in the intermediate and deep areas of the defensive backfield. No big plays, and Army's front seven would carry the day.
That's exactly what happened this past Saturday in the Superdome.
Five times, Army's offense turned the ball over. Five times, Army had to play sudden-change defense, with the Green Wave just aching to make a huge touchdown play. On repeated occasions, frustrating occurrences gave Army—and particularly its defense—every reason to wilt, to give in, to get distracted, to get down, to lose focus.
The boys from West Point held that line, and guarded Fort End Zone with incredible athletic, on-field courage (to be held out as distinct and separate from real-life courage of an even higher order).
And here's the final, telling element of the contest.
After all Army's defense had done, the fact remained that Tulane—after a full game of frustrations and setbacks from its end—had the ball one more time with yet another chance to finally break through and win. When you're a winless team, seeing the opponent get a final, extra chance to win a game can cause that slight but oh-so-significant mental distraction that can get a team—and a defense—beaten by a big play.
But no—Army's gallant defense would have nothing of that.
Maurio Smith prevented Army from having to make a four-down stand by rising up to make a game-sealing interception in the late going, a final, decisive play from a defense that stood quite tall inside America's tallest domed structure.
What does the fight song say?
"Fiiiiiight on, Brave Army Team!"
The men on Army's defense listened too, and then lived out, that battle cry. Because they did, Army now has a victory.
Operation Pigskin Win was an unqualified success on Saturday in the Superdome. In a low-key but no less special way, that huge palace of powerful pigskin performances witnessed yet one more championship effort from some disciplined young Army men.