Perspiration Yes, Inspiration No
Playoff baseball games aren't measured in hits, walks or opportunities. They're measured by runs and wins. In a larger context, sports – sometimes married to a time clock (as in the case of football) and sometimes not (baseball) – are always governed by opportunities and the ways in which teams respond to them. For most of this season, Army – a team that fights hard and gives the old college try on every snap – had not been able to consolidate the gains it makes within limited contexts and spans of time. When scoreboard situations were still manageable and in-game leverage was still attainable, the Black Knights ordinarily proved unable – on both sides of the ball – to win the dozen plays during a game that, taken together, tip the competitive balance in one direction.
Against Northern Illinois, Army's offense flourished, but the defense always allowed the Huskies to strike back. In the closing minutes, Northern Illinois's defense – for all the ways in which it failed against Army on that afternoon in West Point – was able to gain the last word, helped in part by a brilliant situational move by its coach, Dave Doeren. Northern Illinois's implementation of the rarely-used defensive timeout, designed to rest an re-focus a tired unit – paid dividends for the Huskies on their fourth-down stop of Trent Steelman and Co. Army owned plenty of perspiration that day, but its opponent possessed a pinch more inspiration.
Versus Wake Forest, Army's offense again carried its fair and reasonable share of the workload, but one point that was worth keeping in mind about that contest is that in the second half, the Black Knights scored touchdowns primarily when Wake Forest had amassed a 12-point advantage. When Army trailed by only five points following those touchdowns from head coach Rich Ellerson's offense, the defense wasn't able to hold the fort on subsequent Demon Deacon possessions. This notion of consolidating momentum and leverage once again entered Army's season, becoming the central tension point and crisis point faced by this entire roster. Effort was not a problem or a question; situational responsiveness and pressure-cooker performance became the foremost issues facing this team, and they remained so when the offense – following nearly 80 combined points in those NIU and Wake losses – managed just a lonely field goal at home against a lower-division team from Stony Brook the following week.
Army fans got to see what an inspiration-graced football game looked like last week against Boston College. Army was the team that got in the last word, even though Boston College had seemingly wrested control from the Black Knights thanks to a gritty goal-line stand just before the two-minute mark of regulation. Army made not just one timely play, but five or six, in the final two minutes to bust into the win column. The team realized that it had to find clusters of plays – bundled together in two- or three-minute segments – to truly attain the upper hand against opponents. Ellerson knows that his team is limited in many ways, but after the exhilarating triumph over Boston College, he had reason to think that his charges had gained the inspiration they needed to supplement all of their perspiration. The formula for success had at last arrived on the scene at Michie Stadium.
This past Saturday, it was Kent State that used the recipe. Army couldn't put it into practice.
You'll note that Kent State scored just 10 red-zone points on Saturday, but that was because the Golden Flashes – who, at 5-1, are producing the kind of season that emerges when a team learns how to win – didn't need to deal with the red zone in the first place. They scored outside the red zone, hitting paydirt on three separate plays of 24 yards or more.
The Golden Flashes drove two-thirds of the field on three of their four touchdown drives. They used a 16-yard pass and a 19-yard run to reach Army's third of the field, the part of any gridiron that is generally seen as scoring territory. Then they struck with a 24- or 30-yard scoring play to avoid the need for red-zone magic. On a third scoring drive, Kent State used a 48-yard run to get to the Black Knights' 7-yard line before pounding the ball into the end zone on three straight runs. When Kent State did score in the red zone, it didn't make the issue terribly complicated.
The Golden Flashes didn't need anything more than the 12 first downs they actually gained on Saturday. Because they were able to string together clusters of big plays in close proximity to each other, they didn't need to worry about the need to – as Hank Stram said when miced for sound by the late, great Steve Sabol during Super Bowl IV – "matriculate the ball down the field." Some coaches talk about sustaining drives. Kent State went one step better: It finished them. Army could not… at least not in the most competitive phases of this contest.
Yes, Army collected 27 first downs to Kent State's 12, but as said in the beginning, playoff baseball games are decided by runs and opportunistic responses, not by hits or scoring chances. First downs can and do offer an apt comparison in the province of pigskin. The trajectory of this tussle was established early on, when Army drove twice inside the Kent State 38 but failed to gain a single point. The Black Knights produced a 13-play drive that ended with a long missed field goal. Kent State made the situational responses the Black Knights had delivered against Boston College, and the psychological playing field had been tilted in favor of the Golden Flashes.
This larger competitive motif never ceased to exist after Army's early marches ended in failure.
It has to be said, plainly but firmly, that Army racked up a lot of its first downs on long touchdown marches that occurred only after Kent State had amassed 21-point leads (24-3 and 31-10) in the second half, with control of the proceedings firmly in the grasp of the visitors from the Mid-American Conference. Army, from a statistical standpoint, loaded up on empty calories, while Kent State gained the solid nutrition and walked away from West Point with a very nourishing victory, one that will catapult coach Darrell Hazell's team to a bowl bid… the bowl bid Army hoped to get this season, but will very likely miss.
This team will continue to perspire in the coming weeks. Army will need to find the ability to make timely tipping-point plays… instead of ceding superiority in that realm to its opponents.