So Close, And Yet So Far Away

If you only casually glanced at the progression of Army's game at Rice this past Saturday in Houston, you might have thought that the high-flying Owls blew the Black Knights out of the water with a brilliant first-half display. But while the 31-10 halftime score made Stan Brock's second trip to Texas an ultimately unsuccessful one, the bigger story of this loss is that it didn't have to happen.

There was little doubt entering this contest that Rice, a quality Conference USA opponent, was going to give the Black Knights some serious problems. Army hasn't faced many high-octane passing attacks in 2008, and since Army runs the triple option, it's hard to simulate a dynamic air-raid offense on the practice field. Much as the great Nebraska teams of the late 1980s found it hard to defend the pro-style offenses of Miami and Florida State, so it also was that the Brave Old Army Team would have to perform incredibly well in order to withstand an assault from the skies in Rice Stadium. Given that the Owls took the field with a 6-3 record and a bowl game on the horizon, Army didn't expect to run down quarterback Chase Clement, star flanker Jarrett Dillard, and the other potent point producers in the Rice lineup. Containment was the only policy Brock's Boys could reasonably employ.

After 31 first-half points, you might think that such a policy manifestly failed.

You'd have been wrong.

Yes, Clement did riddle Army's secondary, completing 75 percent of his passes for 384 yards and three touchdowns. But those stats--as many other numerical totals so often do--failed to tell the full story. With better ball security, the entire trajectory of this contest would have been substantially different.

Early in the second quarter, the Black Knights were holding Rice in check. The huge home-run plays the Owls count on from their passing game had not yet developed, and down just 10-7, Army had seemingly sunk its teeth into the proceedings. Everything was proceeding according to plan. It was only then that in a short span of time, the game unraveled and led Army to realize that in Houston, it had a problem.

Army kicker Matthew Campbell missed a 42-yard game-tying field goal attempt with 9:10 left in the second stanza. That deflating development initiated a domino effect that felled the visitors from West Point. Two snaps after that missed kick, Clement and Dillard--who have combined to create 46 touchdown passes in their decorated careers--hooked up on an 80-yard bomb that consolidated the massive momentum shift taking place on the field. After just two more scrimmage plays, Army receiver Jameson Carter fumbled at his own 30, setting up another Owl touchdown that quickly pushed the score to 24-7 in favor of Rice.

The deluge of daggers raining down on Army wasn't yet over, however, painful though it was for everyone on a stunned sideline.

Army's offense, down 17, finally steamed downfield, running the triple option to perfection and gashing Rice's defense. But stud running back Collin Mooney, in yet another crucial fumble during a generally impressive season, coughed up the pill at the Rice 5, and Owl defender Joseph Leary fell on the ball in the end zone to leave Army reeling. Clement and Dillard notched that 46th touchdown on the following drive, and in just over seven minutes of actual game time, the 10-7 tussle turned into a 31-7 runaway. Army tacked on a field goal just before halftime, and admirably conceded nothing in the second half, but that leaky second quarter proved to be too much to overcome.

Just let this much be known: Army's defense played better than it showed. Without several momentum-swinging plays and telltale turnovers in that fatal stretch of just over seven minutes, the Black Knights would have entered the third quarter on very even terms. Given their success running the ball--Mooney did eclipse the 200-yard mark for the second time this season, and the 170-yard plateau for the fourth time in 2008--the Brave Old Army Team had an excellent opportunity to beat the Owls by keeping Clement and Dillard off the field. Instead, the Owls--while slipping--did hold on in the fourth quarter to tuck away a bowl bid.

Turnovers have consistently haunted the Army program over the past several years. With Rutgers looming after a bye week, and Navy following two weeks after that, the Black Knights will face two competent and talented teams who will punish each and every mistake they make. In the final two games of a season that has witnessed A-grade effort but spotty execution, Stan Brock's squad needs to tighten its hold on the pigskin, and allow the triple option to keep opposing offenses on the sidelines. With better ball security, Army will find the ball control formula needed to spring some surprises and gain forward momentum heading into 2009.

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