A Green Wave Of Nausea

Some losses can help a rebounding program, showing the way to needed improvement and steady growth. Saturday's agonizing defeat against Tulane wasn't the kind of loss Army had in mind.

A Green Wave of nausea is sweeping through the sickened stomachs of the Black Knights, who pulled off a come-from-ahead 17-16 loss against their old Conference USA rivals on Saturday at Michie Stadium. Some games have silver linings, pieces of value that coaches and players can cling to in moments of searing agony, but all Rich Ellerson has—at the end of an October gameday—is frustration in the face of a New Orleans fish that got away.

What's going to gnaw at Ellerson and a disappointed fan base the most? Could it be that Army showed enough pluck to drive for a winning field goal attempt, only for tough-luck kicker Alex Carlton to miss from 37 yards out? Carlton made all three of his previous attempts in this game, so it's hard to assign too much blame to the young man whose fourth kick couldn't split the uprights.

Perhaps Army's inability to hold onto a nine-point, two-possession lead will rankle. Then again, the fact that the Black Knights competed well—even when their execution didn't match their intensity—will make the team's fourth-quarter fate a modest point of focus in the upcoming week of practice.

No, what must really begin to get through to this team—and which Ellerson will certainly emphasize in the week to come—is the fact that when placed in crucial situations, Army simply didn't display the discipline that a service academy program has to bring to the forefront in a tightly-contested football fistfight.

It was alarming to note that Army scored points on only one drive that started in its own territory. The Black Knights' lone touchdown was the fruit of a blocked punt by Dean Lisante, and two of Army's three field goals were the result of drive starts on Tulane's half of the field. Part of the reason for the struggles of the triple-option offense lay in the fact that the Brave Old Army Team—rightly intent on perfecting its ground game—lacks the polished passing attack needed to convert third downs, which are becoming the number one liability for Ellerson and his staff. Army struggled to a 5-of-16 rate on third downs this Saturday, one week after failing at a similar clip against Iowa State.

Yet, with third-down woes and passing limitations having been acknowledged, there's more to the story of Army's offensive struggles than Trent Steelman's arm. A lot more.

On three separate drives—two of which produced disappointing field goals after reaching the Tulane red zone—Army committed damaging penalties that put the skids on a march to paydirt. A false start and a holding penalty turned two potential seven-point sojourns into three-point forays. On the ill-fated fourth-quarter drive that witnessed punter Jonathan Bulls being tackled short of the marker on 4th and 9 from the Green Wave 39, a third-down false start put the Black Knights behind the sticks. If an opponent is too good for Ellerson's outfit (as Iowa State was last week), that's one thing; for Army to hand-deliver crucial penalties to Tulane, and essentially refuse to score touchdowns, is quite another matter. With all due respect to the visitors from Louisiana, coach Bob Toledo's program has steadily lost games in a downmarket league (Conference USA)—this is not a program that enjoys appreciably superior talent when placed on the same field as Army. For the Black Knights to squander glorious field position because of their own situational lapses represents a letdown of considerable proportions. Don't scapegoat Alex Carlton or lament the blown-up 4th and 9. Focus on penalties as the truly irritating aspect of this loss. Unforced errors never fly, but especially against a Tulane team that isn't good enough to intimidate Army into making shaky mistakes.

One more thought on this hugely unsatisfying afternoon in West Point bears mentioning: Because Army didn't sustain much offense, the fact that the Black Knights failed on their many short-field drives becomes all the more exasperating. If these false starts and other lapses came at the tail-end of 80- or 90-yard drives in which the offensive line was gassed, they wouldn't become any more acceptable, but they would at least become more understandable and explicable. But for this offense to move the ball 5, 10, or 20 yards and then stumble in the red zone makes the deficient discipline profoundly more puzzling.

It's not often that Army loses a game because of penalties, but today represented just such an exception. No wonder stomachs are churning while the Green Wave of Tulane fly out of New York state with an unexpected victory.

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