Visions of Completeness

If the Army Black Knights become a better, more successful service academy football program – the kind of program that can stand at 6-4 this late into a season – they'll want to note the ways in which the Air Force Academy thrived on a special and poignant Saturday in Colorado Springs.

The Rocky Mountain air owned a unique edge at Falcon Stadium, on a day when College Gameday paid a visit and two academy teams took the gridiron with heavy hearts after Thursday's horrifying tragedy in Fort Hood, Tex. Football was simultaneously less significant than ever before and yet powerfully meaningful, giving dozens of young men a healthy competitive outlet and a welcome distraction amidst a time of shared loss and solemnity. The backdrop of universally-acknowledged grief allowed Army and Air Force to cherish the ability to play a kid's game on a national stage. After a short while, feelings faded into the blue of the sunny Colorado sky, and two academies could measure themselves against each other.

When these clubs put their rulers and protractors together, the geometry of this Commander-In-Chief rivalry showed that Air Force owned the extra measures of completeness that Army so fully needs to attain.

Some casual observers who read the standard-issue Associated Press game report will think that Army missed a huge opportunity in the first half of this game. "Army allowed only 39 yards to Air Force, and only 4 on the ground!" These critics will point out. "How could the Black Knights have managed nothing more than a 7-7 tie at halftime?"

But if you look below the surface numbers, you'll notice that even while Army did indeed carry the play in the first 30 minutes, the Falcons found the diversified portfolio that usually adds up to success… and which Rich Ellerson needs to piece together in the coming years, as he tries to build Army into a winning program.

Why did Army not own a lead in the first half? Special teams offers the simple answer, but not for the reason you might initially think: Yes, it is true that Army's coverage unit was far too tentative on an 88-yard punt return to paydirt by Air Force's Anthony Wright, but the reason why Army didn't put more points on the board in the second quarter – at a time when the white-shirted Black Knight defense was thumping the boys in blue jerseys – came from a very unlikely source.

A few hundred miles south of Yellowstone and Old Faithful, Air Force punter Brandon Geyer might as well have been a geyser on Saturday. The man charged with one of the least glamorous yet most essential responsibilities on a football roster poured forth clutch punts in that second stanza to give Air Force competitive parity.

When one Falcon drive was snuffed out on the Air Force 26, Geyer crushed a 71-yard punt that pinned Army to its own 2. Later, when the Black Knights created a three-and-out and produced negative rushing plays for the Falcons' offense, the home team had to give up the ball from its own 6. Once again, Geyer stepped to the forefront as he stood in his own blue-painted end zone. Geyer's 63-yard punt flipped field position and forced Army – which was hoping for a drive start in Falcon territory on the exchange of possession – to start from its own 31. Much as a hot goaltender can keep a hockey team competitive even while it's getting dominated, so it also stands that when a football team's offense is being smothered by an opposing defense, a live-legged punter can serve as a powerful neutralizing agent, and that's what Brandon Geyer became for coach Troy Calhoun's crew. Army thrived before halftime, but not on the scoreboard, and such is life when an opposing punter quite literally puts his best foot forward.

Once in the second half, Air Force – relieved to be tied and not down on the scoreboard – clearly played a much more liberated brand of ball, as Army fell to 3-6 on the season. But what's especially important to note about Air Force's second-half surge is that it was produced with the help of a timely pass.

Army still had a foot in the door and a place in the fight in the latter stages of the third quarter, trailing only 14-7 and still contesting the game on fairly even terms. It was at this point, however, that the Falcons took flight, "breaking the bone" and letting loose on a downfield aerial that put the "air" in Air Force.

Much as Navy surprised – and scored against – Notre Dame on Saturday with a rare pass that came at an unexpected time, Air Force did the same thing to the Brave Old Army Team. Quarterback Tim Jefferson abruptly darted back into the pocket and hit receiver Kevin Fogler for a 73-yard touchdown pass that, in little more than 10 seconds, transformed the complexion of the contest in all its constitutive elements. The scoring strike gave Air Force a two-touchdown cushion, energized the Falcon sideline, and forced Army's run-first offense to climb the kind of hill the Black Knights of the Hudson aren't yet equipped to surmount.

As Army regroups this week, and gets ready for VMI, it will be worth noting that the collection of little things performed by Air Force is the very assemblage of acts that the Black Knights need to incorporate into their modus operandi.

Army needs to be able to flip fields with greater consistency.

Army needs to be able to hit the one big (and rare) pass for a score to alter the calculus of a Saturday competition.

Army needs to complete 4 passes for 131 yards and a score, as opposed to 9 passes for 112 yards and no truly high-impact plays. (Look also at what Georgia Tech often does in this regard.)

Army needs to be the team that pops off an 88-yard kick return to gain points without benefit of offense.

None of these things should be expected to exist right now, at this point in what will be a multi-year evolution. In due time, however, they need to become part of Army football; if they do, the Black Knights will be able to reach November and own the winning records their academy brethren have managed to manufacture in 2009.

This is how you learn. This is how you develop. Army's education – one that should bear fruit under Rich Ellerson – continues as the

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