WEST POINT -- Another week, another blown opportunity. Consistency is becoming very inconsistent at Army.
“If there were one or two things that would be too easy we would have done that by now,” Army head coach Rich Ellerson said. “I do think that part of the challenge right now is the consistency of personality. We have had so many guys come in and out of the lineup, and it’s been hard time trying to keep the rust off.”
The Black Knights' play of late indicates the degree of corrosiveness. After losing to Temple two weeks ago, 33-14, they had a chance to regroup with a bye week, and for most of the first half against Air Force Saturday the healing process had seemed to kick in. Army was moving the ball, scoring three touchdowns, and definitely was in control of the pace of the game.
Then, just 1 minute, 47 seconds after Army had ground out a 10-play, 75-yard drive to take the lead, Air Force scored the tying touchdown with 11 seconds left in the half, a 72-yard drive that was jump started with a 43-yard run by Anthony LaCoste. Whatever early-game momentum that had been built crumbled in the second half. The Falcons outscored Army 21-7 on their way to a 42-28 victory. Army surely isn’t comfortable with losing, but perhaps they’ve become too accustomed to it.
“We play in two games where we had really high expectations for ourselves as well as high expectations that were placed on us and we didn’t handle those expectations very well,” Ellerson said. “We didn’t play as well as we wanted to or coach as well as we wanted to coach. Maybe getting ourselves back into the underdog mentality is where we need to be in order to let it go and have some fun. Nothing in this game happens without enthusiasm and frankly, we were as tight as a drum, at least on the defensive side of the ball, and that shows. When you are tight like that, you are fractured and that’s what we saw, we saw some fractures.”
One of those fractures was of the literal variety. On the LaCoste run, Army linebacker Julian Holloway was taken down near midfield, suffering a broken right leg.
“I think defensively, we were frustrated with how the first half ended. Losing Julian in that series and letting them out of jail at the end of the first half, we forfeited the momentum,” Ellerson said. “Offensively, we could not generate one of those giant plays. We had to operate all the way down the field. Things happen and that’s what got us a little bit in the second half. Offensively, we score some points and if we can kick a field goal or two, then we’re good for 30 points against those guys if we don’t turn the ball over. What we needed in the second half was a drive. What we needed not to do was have negative play or a penalty.”
One negative play that turned the game around was the second of two missed field goals by Dan Grochowski. He had a 48-yard attempt blocked in the second quarter. This time, he missed a 39-yarder on Army’s first possession of the second half. Rather than Army having the lead, Air Force had the ball. And on its first play, LaCoste ran for a 78-yard touchdown, the second of his two 70-plus-yard touchdown runs. From thereon, the Falcons controlled the game.
“The one big play that does such a huge body of work can fracture you,” Ellerson said. “They put together a 15-play drive, but they didn’t do that very often. That’s hard to do. They need some calls, they need some penalties and they need some help from us. When they can go out there and run the power play for 75 yards, it’s like ‘holy cow.’ We saw the power play a lot on Saturday and it’s not a problem except for the one time.”
The Black Knights, 3-6, have only three games remaining, and they’ll need to win them all just to break even for the season.
“We have to do some soul searching and what have you but as I said, we have to have fun and loosen up,” he said. “At the end of the day, it’s a game. It’s a fun game, a game that we love and a game that we are good at, but we have to let it go and play.”
Ellerson perennially walks that tightrope between wanting to win a game while still thinking of it as a game. Yeah, they’re playing Saturdays. But those hours spent in the weight room and at practice and in team meetings during the week don’t qualify as the night before Christmas.
Halfback Raymond Maples has been one week away from playing every week since he suffered a groin injury against Stanford Sept. 14. Any form of optimism no longer applies.
“It doesn’t look like it’s going to turn around for him,” Ellerson said. “I think they’re looking into some other possible maladies that may be haunting him a little bit to try and get him over the hump. The smart guys are saying it will be anywhere from six to eight weeks.”
Saturday’s game against Western Kentucky will be Army's last home game of the season, and, as such, the last time seniors will have a chance to play at home. Maples will not be the only one deprived of that chance.
“I love our team,” Ellerson said. “I don’t always love all the things our team does. Our seniors have done a great job in trying to manage the team. I give the seniors credit. We were in a good place emotionally going into that contest and we worked really hard to keep that together. That group has been banged up. We’ve got some guys like Hayden Tippett, Thomas Holloway and Raymond Maples who have been right in the middle of our efforts. They haven’t been able to get out on the field with us these last few weeks and that’s killing them. As hard as they work to keep their focus, they’re not out there between the white lines to help that effort. They’ve been through an awful lot together, and they’ve bought into what we’re doing. This is another great challenge for them. We’ve been dished up something we didn’t want, but we’ve got another challenge and an opportunity to play. That’s hard, but frankly, we’ve got the right guys on the job.”