WEST POINT – Terry Baggett was playing positively unfairly. It wasn’t enough that he broke the Army single-game record with 304 yards rushing, scoring four touchdowns as he did. It wasn’t enough that his exploits helped lead Army to a 50-25 victory over Eastern Michigan at Michie Stadium Saturday. But he was doing so with virtually no opposition. He probably endured more congratulatory contact with his teammates than he did with the Eastern Michigan defense. Don’t bother with any adjectives; none would do him justice.
“When we were running the plays, I knew the line was going to execute,” he said. “I knew everything else was going to be perfectly aligned and all I had to do was run the ball.”
That he did. The first two times resulted in modest gains of seven and four yards, the latter a touchdown. But the second time the Black Knights had the ball gave the first indication that a special game’s potential had been laid. Starting at their own 33, quarterback Angel Santiago’s pitch went to Baggett. He was barely grazed by a few hands before breaking it open for a 67-yard touchdown run.
“The beautiful thing about Terry is that he can finish those runs,” Army head coach Rich Ellerson said. “We’re not two, three or four yards and a cloud of dust. If we hit it, he can finish it.”
And so he did. The game began poorly for Army, as Eastern Michigan began a reprise of its 48-38 victory over Army last season. A 17-play, 76-yard opening-game drive ended when its quarterback, Tyler Benz, avoided a sack, then hit Bronson Hill for a 17-yard touchdown pass. The Eagles caught something of a break when a bad snap occurred on the ensuing extra-point play. The holder, Mark Iannotti, picked up the ball and launched a floating pass to Cole Gardner for a 2-point conversion and an 8-0 lead.
Baggett’s first touchdown made the score 8-7. On Eastern Michigan’s ensuing possession, Hill picked up where he left off last season -- when he rushed for 185 yards -- breaking through for a 43-yard gain. His 13-yard run on the next play gave the Eagles a 15-7 lead. Then, it was Baggett’s turn. The touchdown on the first play from scrimmage was the third such score Army has put up in its last two games. Army tied the game when Santiago ran it in on a 2-point play.
Baggett’s contribution on the next Army drive – at which time it took the lead – was minimal (one 6-yard run) but Santiago and running back Trenton Turrentine took care of matters. The two were involved in 13 of the drive’s 17 plays, and it was an 18-yard run by Turrentine that got the ball to the Eastern Michigan 12. It took six more plays for the Black Knights to score, and they finally did so on a 1-yard run by Turrentine. It appeared a shootout resembling last season’s game was just warming up.
“I trust that the defense is going to go out there and get us the ball back,” Santiago said. “When we take the field, we only have one thing on our mind, and that’s to drive the ball down the field and score. We just take each play as it is.”
Justin Trimble intercepted a Benz pass on the first play of Eastern Michigan’s next possession, but 21 yards from Baggett on two carries wasn’t enough to sustain the drive. And this time it was Eastern Michigan’s turn. Another 17-play drive brought the Eagles to the Army 14, but a beautiful breakup by Hayden Pierce of a Benz end-zone pass intended for Tyreese Russell forced them to settle for a field goal with five seconds left in the half, leaving Army with a 22-18 lead.
Army started the second half with the ball, and a little bit of a passing and a bit more of running brought the ball to the Eastern Michigan 34. From there, Baggett went right; as the Eastern Michigan defense went left the opening in the defensive line could have fit an 18-wheeler, and Baggett had his third touchdown. Eastern Michigan’s next possession resulted in what its head coach, Ron English, believed to be the game’s turnaround.
Benz got credit for a 53-yard completion on a screen pass to Hill that immediately brought his team to the Army 12. A 2-yard run by Hill was followed by a Benz incompletion. Benz then hit Jay Jones for a short completion, but as Jones sought to get more he was stripped of the ball by Josh Jenkins. Trimble recovered. Army had the ball at its own 4.
"I thought the fumble coming out of the second half was a turning point and I think that as the game went on we didn't read our keys as well as we should have inside,” English said. “The ball kept hitting us inside, so I want to go back and look at what we were asking the linebackers to do, but I didn't feel like we were responding as well to our keys as we needed to. I thought that fumble, that was a 14-point swing right there which was huge.”
How huge? After Santiago’s first-down incompletion, Baggett took a handoff and no one on the Eastern Michigan defense gave him anything more than a dirty look. His 96-yard run gave Army a 37-18 lead. His 67-yard TD run in the first quarter was a personal best. The ink hadn’t even dried on that before this one. When he finally made it across the goal line he was still in first gear.
“In my mind, I was thinking I couldn’t let anyone get close to me so I just kept running as hard as I could,” he said. “When we were running the plays, I knew the line was going to execute. I knew everything else was going to be perfectly aligned and all I had to do was run the ball. On that 96-yard run, all I did was run straight down the field. I didn’t have to make anybody miss. That is a sign of great execution by everyone else, and that makes it easy.”
Earlier in the week, Ellerson said Army would take what Eastern Michigan would give it. Well, Eastern Michigan was being very generous. On the possession following Baggett’s 96-yarder, the Eagles had a fourth down and less than a foot. Hill was stopped at the Army 20.
“To come back to not get the fourth and one was critical,” English said.
“It was great. As a defense, we live for that stuff,” Trimble said. “We consider that a turnover, so our turnover margin was even better today. We got a pick, forced a fumble and got two fourth-down stops. That’s big for our defense.”
Five different players carried the ball when Army took over, and it was Larry Dixon that supplied the hammer, spinning away from five potential tacklers for a 30-yard touchdown run with 1 minute, 40 seconds left in the third quarter.
“The big thing for me was Wednesday, which is our full-pad, full-speed day,” Dixon said. “On the first play of practice, Terry got a block on the corner. Sometimes it’s hard getting beat up in practice, but he got up and was so excited. That set the tone for the week. That’s what it was. The offensive line was crazy. The big thing today was execution. If the offense didn’t score, the defense came through, and if the defense struggled, the offense came through. We were a team. That was big today, and I think we can carry that forward.”
A 21-yard touchdown pass from Benz to Dustin Creel on its first possession of the fourth quarter cut the Army lead to 43-25; the Black Knights returned the favor on their subsequent possession, which ended with a 4-yard Matt Giachinta run. Three plays earlier a 6-yard run by Baggett put him over the 300-yard mark. A 3-yard run on the play immediately prior to Giachinta’s touchdown was Baggett’s last. His final total of 304 yards blew away the previous Army record of 269 yards, set by Mike Wallace in 1999 against Louisville. Baggett's third-quarter 96-yard scoring run was the second longest run in team history, trailing just a 97-yard gain by Greg King in 1977 against Holy Cross. Further, his rushing yardage was the most by a Division I NCAA running back this season.
After breaking those early runs, Baggett seemed to be running with a catch-me-if-you-can confidence.
“I hope that our guys think that every time they touch the ball,” Ellerson said. “He knows he’s not the Lone Ranger. There are a bunch of other guys battling out there on every snap, and a lot of guys have to do things right to get that started. Those guys have had enough success that they have high expectations when they touch the ball. They have high expectations for one another without the ball. They’re coming through for one another. The foundation of a great relationship is trust, and we trust our teammates to battle and do the right things without the football so, oh, by the way, when I’m touching it something good will happen. They enjoy playing the game with or without the football. The whole offense feels great about those numbers. It’s not an individual.”
Typical coach speak. But for a team that is now 3-4 after winning two of its last three games and is playing winless Temple next week, who’s to say he’s wrong.