WEST POINT – Moral victories don’t show up in the standings, so Army’s 34-20 loss to Stanford at Michie Stadium Saturday only qualifies as just that. A loss. Still, a 30-point underdog against the fifth-ranked team in the nation that is still contending for a victory entering the fourth quarter can be perceived as having accomplished something. Right Angel Santiago?
“We come into every game believing we have a chance to win,” the Army quarterback said. “We were moving the ball and driving on them, but every now and then we would have a mental mistake, and that can't happen. If we can get rid of those then the score is definitely different."
“We didn’t come to be close,” Army head coach Rich Ellerson said. “We didn’t come to get a moral victory. We came to try and win the game."
And for a time, the Black Knights were winning. On Stanford’s third play of the game, quarterback Kevin Hogan fumbled after being hit by Army lineman Mike Ugenyi. When Richard Glover recovered, Army took over at the Stanford 31. But Army failed to make a first down and settled for a 39-yard field goal by Dan Grochowski.
Stanford went three and out on its next possession, and the Black Knights moved the ball to the Cardinal 33. They went no further, and once again it was Grochowski, this time a 48-yarder. Two possessions fairly deep in Stanford’s end of the field and only six points to show for it. Against a team with the offensive punch of Stanford, that is likely going to be costly. It was.
On the Cardinal’s subsequent possession, it took only four plays for it to move the ball 75 yards for a touchdown that gave it the lead for good. The scoring play was a 27-yard pass to Michael Rector, a ball that was tipped near the goal line by Stanford wide receiver Kelsey Young and landed in Rector’s arms. Each of Stanford’s six scoring drives featured at least one high-yardage play that either sustained the drive or put it within scoring range.
"They scored 34 points on our defense,” Army free safety Geoffery Bacon said. “They had 200 yards rushing and 200 yards passing. That's not good. We didn't want them to score more than 21 points, and they did that. Yeah, we did some things better than last week, but they put up 34. That's a loss."
On its next possession a 25-yard punt return by Kodi Whitfield gave Stanford the ball at the Army 46. And the Cardinal completed its scoring drive in nine seconds when Hogan threw a perfect, in-stride touchdown pass to Ty Montgomery.
“I feel like our offense is very balanced,” Montgomery said. “With the guys outside doing their job in the run game it helps with our passing game and we run our routes and get open. We look for the ball and we catch it.”
It was on Army’s next drive the wheels began to come off. More specifically, the Black Knights began to lose their wheels.
On their third play, halfback Raymond Maples came off the field after a 3-yard gain holding his back. He did not return. And it was just 2 minutes, 5 seconds into the third quarter when fullback Larry Dixon was taken down after a 2-yard run. He lie on the field for several minutes before being helped off. He, too, did not return. As for their physical status, Ellerson said, ““Frankly, I don’t have an update. That was a little bit of a concern.”
It just added to the unsteadiness of the Army offense. Running back Tyler Baggett picked up some of the slack with 96 yards rushing, including a 31-yard run that brought the ball to the Stanford 24. Dixon scored from the 15 five plays later, bringing Army to within four, 17-13.
In addition to the backfield injuries Army’s offensive continuities were disrupted by Santiago and A.J. Schurr replacing each other back and forth. Santiago started the game. Schurr entered the game late in the first quarter and ran the show for two possessions. Santiago reentered the game with 3:53 late in the first half, and it was on that sequence the Black Knights got their score thanks to Dixon. Schurr finally got back into the game on Army’s final possession and led Army to its final score, a 6-yard TD pass to Edgar Poe. After anointing Santiago as the No. 1 quarterback less than three weeks ago, it seems the position is once again unsettled.
“They are so close in the practice environment that I feel like, until somebody establishes themselves as the clear starter, we’re going to take advantage of the fact that we have two guys who can make plays,” Ellerson said. “They both can make plays with their legs. They can both throw it. There are some ups downs with both of them. We’ll slow it down and see what it looks like tomorrow in the final analysis. There is some great things on there, but there are some things that have to get right.”
For the game, Santiago ended with 54 yards rushing, completed two of five passes for 24 yards and had a fumble; Schurr rushed for 18 yards and completed four of five passes for 25 yards and one touchdown.
"A.J. and I both run the offense very well, in my opinion,” Santiago said. “He did some great things out there. I felt like it was giving the defense a different look."
As for deciding who will earn next week’s start against Wake Forest, Ellerson said, “We’ll see, frankly. We’ll slow it down and look at the tape. Those guys are both doing fine. To evaluate them fairly, you need to let them play in a stressful environment like that when the game is in doubt. We’ll see. We’ll find out a lot more about them both when we slow it down. Clearly, they can both play. It’s not going to be easy for [offensive coordinator Ian] Shields and myself to make that call, and that’s to our quarterbacks’ credit. I don’t necessarily see us continuing to play a lot of two quarterbacks, but we need to find out who that guy is.”
Stanford was able to put the game away thanks to an Army gamble it lost. Trailing by two touchdowns early in the fourth quarter, the Black Knights faced a third and 1 at their own 29. Santiago’s subsequent pass was incomplete. Fourth and 1.
“We made the decision to go for [a pass] on third down. We were going to take a shot, and if we didn’t get it we were going to go for it on fourth down,” Ellerson said. “That’s our identity, fourth and short, we’re going to go for it and we’re going to go for it a lot. At that point, you’re not trying to keep the score close, you’re trying to win the game. If I second guessed myself, it would be whether we take the shot downfield on third down instead of using two downs to get the first down. That’s the do over. We made that decision we were going to take the shot.”
Army missed. Santiago, running for that one yard on fourth down, lost a yard. Stanford took over, and running back Tyler Gaffney accounted for all 29 yards on five plays, all on the ground, including a 1-yard run for the score. It gave Stanford a 34-13 lead, its biggest of the game. Gaffney ended the game with 132 yards rushing, more than half his team’s 203 yards.
“I want to include both of our backs, they run so hard,” Stanford coach David Shaw said. “Gaffney’s 220 pounds and [Anthony] Wilkerson is 215 pounds; they’re big, physical guys who drag people. To be the team that we want to be, to be a physical, between-the-tackles running team, we need guys like that. Those two guys are our horses right now. We need that for our identity. It also helps the play-action pass game, which we saw a couple play-action pass plays go for touchdowns.”
“We played hard enough,” Ellerson said. “We didn’t play well enough against an opponent that doesn’t give you much margin for error. We competed. We continued to fight. We continued to play hard. Emotionally, guys were in a good place. When I say that I mean, they were as emotional as I’ve ever seen them, but they used the emotion and didn’t fall off the edge. That doesn’t excuse some of the mistakes we made, but we’ll look at this film and see a way forward. If this team will stay together, and they will because they’re the best in the world at hanging on to one another, then there will be a very crystal clear way forward for this team.”
For a day at least it was crystal clear Army could play with the big boys. Ranked fifth. Thirty-point favorite. But playing with them was still little consolation.
"We're taking no moral victories,” defensive lineman Robert Kough said. “We wanted to win that game. We knew they were a power team. They were going to line up and just run the ball at us. We did some things very well up front, but they did put up 34 points on us. We have to take the good things and put them toward next week and the rest of the season. I think they respect us a lot more than they did when they were preparing for us during the week. That's something we'll take and put toward next week."