WEST POINT –A late arriving fan at Michie Stadium Saturday could have looked at the scoreboard and assumed he’d stumbled onto a baseball game. The score of Wake Forest 3, Army 2 surely implied a pitchers’ battle. Then, in a matter of 88 seconds, a game resembling football began to emerge.
With 1 minute, 28 seconds left in the first half Wake Forest scored a touchdown. Fifty seconds later Army countered with a field goal. And 28 seconds later Army fell one play short of being able to attempt another field goal. Still, 10-5 seemed more like a football score. And by game’s end the Black Knights were once again on the short end of one, losing to the Demon Deacons 25-11, Army’s third straight defeat.
“We lost. How are we supposed to feel after a loss?” Army free safety Geoffery Bacon said. “We're not playing to lose out there. No disrespect to Wake Forest, but we beat ourselves. That's a carryover from last week. Stanford is a great program, but that was us messing up. They didn't do anything crazy. Everything they threw at us we could handle. It's those couple of times that we slip up. We need to learn from this. When are we done slipping up? When is it going to get to the point where we are playing consistent football?"
If Army did showcase any consistency against Wake Forest it was its time-and-again run of penalties. For the game the Black Knights were called on eight penalties; incredibly five were called on the offense for false starts. A team playing without its two starting running backs – Ray Maples and Larry Dixon were both out with injuries suffered last week – could little afford to have drives stopped in its tracks by ticky-tack penalties. Alas, that was one of the ways the Black Knights let the game get away from them.
“That's so uncharacteristic,” Army head coach Rich Ellerson said. “That's something we pride ourselves on and have worked so hard on. Maybe some of those wrinkles we used trying to compensate for some personnel challenges were harder for us than they were for our opponent. Frankly, in the offensive line at least, we were able to keep it pretty consistent for those guys."
Not this game. The first of those false starts occurred on Army’s second possession. The game was scoreless and Army had the ball on its own 37, third and 2, when right guard Zach Reichert was flagged. Running back Trenton Turrentine made up for it with a 12-yard run for a first down. But on the next play, Reichert was caught again. This time, Army was unable to make up the yardage and needed to punt.
However, a 51-yard punt by Alex Tardieu pinned the Deacons on their own 6. Tailback Josh Harris suffered a 4-yard loss on first down, then was tackled in the end zone by Richard Glover on second down for a safety. Army led 2-0.
“We had some wrinkles that maybe had them on their heels a little bit initially,” Ellerson said. “There is no doubt they thickened it up and did some seven-man protection. We were leaning on our linebackers to generate some of that, and they have to be able to move.”
Ellerson continued to rotate quarterbacks Angel Santiago and A.J. Schurr. Santiago started, but it was Schurr in the game late in the first quarter when he fumbled, the ball recovered at the Army 40 by Hunter Williams. Wake Forest moved to the Army 18, then had a 9-yard run that was erased on a 15-yard penalty for an illegal block. Wake Forest was unable to make up the difference, settling for a 35-yard field goal by Chad Hedlund and a 3-2 lead.
The score stayed that way until Wake Forest took over the ball at its own 23 with 2:01 remaining in the half. Quarterback Tanner Price ran for 11 yards, then, on the next play, hit his No. 1 receiver, Mike Campanaro, with a 66-yard touchdown pass. Army got the ball back and countered with its highest-gaining play of the day, a 51-yard by Terry Baggett. That gave Army the ball at the Wake Forest 24. Three subsequent plays moved the ball to the 17; another false-start penalty moved the ball back five yards, at which time Dan Grochowski hit a 39-yard field goal.
Joshua Wilhite then fumbled Grochowski’s subsequent kick off. Wake Forest got a break, the ball rolling about 20 yards forward before finally being recovered by Tom Holloway at the Wake Forest 41. Santiago hit Xavier Moss with a 6-yard completion, then spiked the ball, Army having no time outs and the ball at the Wake Forest 35 with 11 seconds left in the half.
Army had three viable alternatives – take a shot at the end zone; have Grochowski attempt what would have been a career-long 52-yard field goal; or running a quick sideline pass to pick up a few extra yards and stop the clock. But, inexplicably, Santiago threw to wide receiver Chevaughn Lawrence, who was well in bounds. It was a mistake by Santiago to throw it and just as big a mistake by Lawrence to catch it. The clock ran out before Army could run another play.
"We were trying to get the ball to the sideline, but the way the ball was thrown there was no way to get that done,” Ellerson said. “That's not where the ball is supposed to be. We're trying to get him out of bounds, but the ball was thrown where he had to lay out to catch it in bounds. You'd rather him just let it bounce and throw one more into the end zone."
“We haven't really tried any long field goals,” Grochowski said. “Coach E [Ellerson] tells us to go out and try to figure out a distance. We were going with the wind at that point so it possibly could have been 55 or 57 yards."
Wake Forest went three and out on its first possession of the second half, and a 22-yard punt by Alex Kinal gave Army the ball at the Deacons’ 36. A 17-yard run by Baggett brought the ball to the 19. Then, another false start, this time courtesy of Justin Gilbert. Army could move no further than the 15, so it was Grochowski again, this time a 32 yarder.
The Black Knights regained the lead on their next possession, a 54-yard, 11-play drive that featured runs by Santiago of 14 and 21 yards. They moved the ball to the 15, at which time Santiago lost two yards. Then it was Nick Bennett’s turn. His false start pushed the ball back to the 22. Two plays later, Army once again had to settle for a field goal, and Grochowski hit his third, a career high, from 32 yards.
"Execution killed a lot of our momentum along with the false starts in the middle of drives and at the end of drives,” Baggett said. “If we get those out of our game, we'll get small plays. We don't need big plays. Our offense isn't built on big plays. It's built on continual four-, five-, 10-yard gains. When we get false starts in critical situations that hurts."
Trailing 11-10, Wake Forest took just over two minutes to regain the lead for good, the key play a 39-yard Price completion to tight end Spencer Bishop. For the game, Price completed only 6 of 17 passes for 132 yards, and 103 of those yards came on the lengthy completions to Campanaro and Bishop. Tailback Dominique Gibson rushed for 10, then Harris went 15 yards untouched for a touchdown. Wake Forest successfully completed the 2-point conversion for an 18-11 lead. Harris was a nonentity his team’s first three games; Saturday, he rushed 19 times for 96 yards and two touchdowns.
“Our defense definitely gets the game ball this week, but our offense did a great job during the drive when we were given a chance to steal the game,” Price said. ”They stepped up and we drove it down their throats, so kudos to those guys for playing hard and having a great game."
Harris’ second touchdown -- and the game’s final score -- occurred on Wake Forest’s first possession of the fourth quarter, a 9-play, 62-yard drive on which Harris ran seven times for 52 yards. Ironically, with a first and goal at the 1, it was the Deacons who got hit with a false start. With the ball at the 6, Harris took it in.
“It just feels great for me and our offensive line to finally have that push,” Harris said. “For me to see the holes and to get in those holes and make plays off the ground, makes me feel like next week we will know how to do these things. We should be pretty good from here on out."
Now down two touchdowns Army needed to gamble, and it do so on its next possession, when, on fourth and 1 from its own 36, Army took a shot. Santiago was stood up at the line and Wake Forest took over. That drive was stunted on second down, when Gilbert was hit with, yes, another false-start penalty.
“We didn't do that in practice. We didn't do that last week,” Baggett said. “That is something we have to address because that's not how we play."
Army got the ball one last time, and this time it was quarterback Kelvin White, making his Army debut, who was able to move the ball. A 3½-minute drive ended with the last play of the game when running back Stephen Fraser was pushed out of bounds at the Wake Forest 2, but White looked sharp, completing 5 of 6 passes for 45 yards. That and Santiago’s 19 passing yards were all Army was able to accomplish in the air. Army also rushed for 271 yards, 43 under their seasonal average.
“We need to find some production, there is no doubt,” Ellerson said. “The whole thing is exacerbated by an opponent that really understands what they're looking at. There is no mystery about what we do offensively to those guys. They've run that offense in their past, and they know exactly what they're looking at. They prepared well for it. They're good up front. Obviously, [nose guard Nikita] Whitlock [who made a team-high 14 tackles] is a nightmare. It was a little bit of a perfect storm, however the turnovers and the penalties don't need to be in our way. That takes us off the field, and it puts us on a longer field, and it allows that offense to keep looking at the defense and find some answers."
The Black Knights now bring their three-game losing streak on the road the next two weeks. Louisiana Tech awaits them next week. Ellerson was in no mood for expressing false optimism.
“Every week is a battle. Every week is its own monster,” he said. “We had some built-in challenges coming out of last week. We had a plan, and a lot of those things we found are going to stay a part of us as a result. We kicked three field goals and got a safety. That's going to make it hard to win a Division I game."