Going Places: Eastern Michigan Review

When the going got tough Saturday afternoon at Michie Stadium, Army's football team got going. In yet another impressive display of gridiron grit, Stan Brock's bunch showed a side not seen to this point in a 2008 season that's acquiring delightfully different dimensions.

It was one thing for Army to trounce Tulane on the strength of blocked kicks and other big plays, running away with a 31-point decision. This past weekend in West Point, though, the Black Knights found themselves in an old-fashioned bare-knuckle fistfight. The big numbers didn't emerge. The scoreboard didn't light up. An opponent didn't cough up tons of turnovers. On this afternoon, it was Army who coughed up the pill, struggled in the red zone, and failed to take advantage of numerous opportunities through the game's first three quarters. Against Eastern Michigan, Army--without its best fastball--would have to use guile, guts and gallantry to prevail.

Any team can have that one magic Saturday when every bounce falls in its direction, and an opponent suffers through sixty sour minutes. That's what characterized the previous week's victory for Army. But in this tense encounter with the visiting Eagles, nothing came easy for the Black Knights after a first-quarter touchdown drive aided by two EMU penalties. Whether they were lulled into a sense of complacency or simply too eager to maintain their focus, the boys in black shirts found tough sledding against a Mid-American Conference opponent who fought them tooth and nail. This particular test would determine if Army had the intestinal fortitude necessary to win without a maximum of potency or precision. Against Eastern Michigan, Army faced the kind of challenge that will greet any struggling program in search of a winning identity.

Apparently, then, Brock's Boys decided to take yet another step in a slow and stuttering but increasingly real evolution.

Using elbow grease, desperation, and a whole lot of willpower, Army rode out several emotional storms to claw out a 17-13 win that, while ugly in an aesthetic sense, brought beauty and beaming smiles to a rightfully satisfied sideline. To understand how the Brave Old Army Team withstood the gallant charge of the Eagles, point to three consecutive possessions in the third quarter.

On the first possession, Army--for the second time in the game--bogged down in the EMU red zone. This time, however, the Black Knights got stuffed at the 1 (earlier in the game, quarterback Chip Bowden gained nothing on a 4th and 1 at the 12, turning the ball back to the Eagles). While it had to be tempting for Brock to try to cram the ball in the end zone, trailing 13-7, Army's head coach decided to collect points and wait for another opportunity, an entirely reasonable decision in light of that earlier fourth-down failure.

Then came the second possession in this critical sequence, and along with it, the emergence of dark clouds on the Army horizon.

When the Eagles, behind two downfield passes from quarterback Andy Schmitt, rolled to the Army 6, it appeared that Stan's plan wouldn't bear fruit. With a touchdown, Eastern Michigan would have gained a two-possession lead that, with Army's still inconsistent option offense, stood to stand up the rest of the way. After the joyride against Tulane, when just about everything went right, the young men cheered on by the Long Gray Line had to hold the line on three snaps near their own end zone. Gut-check time, the time for toughness and the making of manhood, had arrived on the banks of the Hudson.

That's when Army got going. One stuffed run and two incomplete passes later, the Eagles were forced to settle for a chip-shot field goal and what would have been a 16-10 lead. But defensive end Victor Ugenyi--who joined the Tulane block party a week ago in New Orleans--came back to quite literally hand it to Eastern Michigan, as his big paw knocked down the kick to keep the Black Knights down by three. Instead of trailing by a two-score margin, the home team saw its fortunes take a 180-degree shift, as EMU couldn't even dent the scoreboard at all.

The final possession in this terrific trilogy then played out, to the delight of the Army partisans who voiced their full-throated support throughout the duration of this defense-dominated duel.

Yes, the Black Knights popped off big runs here and there--star running back Collin Mooney, who racked up 229 yards on the day, galloped for 67 yards on the drive stopped on fourth down at the 12--but Army's attack found virtually no consistency throughout the afternoon. After the defensive unit fought its way out of jail to keep the deficit at 13-10, the offense--just once--had to deliver the goods and bring home the win.

My, did it ever. If consistency is what the Brave Old Army Team needed, consistency is what it received on the one portrait of pigskin perfection from the triple-option offense. Mooney didn't bust a big one--he ran for no longer than 13 yards on any single play of the drive--but just the same, the Black Knights nudged the ball up the field, converting a few third downs and never, ever stopping. What began with more than five minutes left in the third quarter at the Army 20 finished with Bowden exulting in the end zone early in the fourth quarter, following a nine-yard touchdown run that put his team in front. It didn't appear anywhere else in this game, but in a major moment of maximum meaning, Army's offense delivered the kind of drive that winning programs are made of: 14 plays, 80 yards, in just under seven minutes.

As one can see, this three-possession sequence took Army and its fans through the full gamut of emotions. About to take the lead (in the first possession), Army--denied at the one-yard line--settled for three and lost some juice. In possession two, the absence of positive momentum helped the Eagles to stand just six yards away from landing a big blow and putting the Black Knights on the ropes. But just when all seemed lost, a huge stand and a blocked kicked revived the hopes of every soul in Michie Stadium who supported the home team. Encouraged but assured of nothing, Army's offense--in the third possession--then made its march to gridiron glory. With a scoreboard lead to accompany their confidence, the members of the Army defense--feeding off a wave of fresh confidence that infused their sideline--held the fort down the stretch. EMU never threatened to score in the game's final minutes, and a two-game winning streak became a reality for a team that, in the past three weeks (including the close loss at Texas A&M) has changed the tone and trajectory of its 2008 campaign.

The schedule will get harder, truth be told, as this Autumnal odyssey continues. Nothing will come easy for the Black Knights in future games. This win over Eastern Michigan--achieved with amazing effort, and cemented with supreme poise under fire--is precisely the kind of confidence-builder this team can carry into even bigger battles. One win against Tulane might have been an accident, but two is a bona fide trend. Army football has a long way to go on the path to five- or six-win seasons, but when you consider where this team was a month ago, progress is the word that applies--more than anything else--to this increasingly awesome October for a resilient roster that refuses to quit.
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