It's such a virtue to be able to prevail on a tough day at the office, a time when little is going right and every part of an athletic competition--such a joy in the good moments--suddenly feels like a chore. Whether shots aren't flowing off a tennis racket or touchdowns aren't flowing from a fully-functioning offense, it's hard to have a healthy appetite for battle when sluggishness reigns supreme. Every athlete--no matter how much his enjoyment of sports--will encounter those occasions when he has to "work sports," and not "play sports." Laboring--intense, grim grinding--is part of being a big-time athlete. Those who can work through the rough patches will live to see victories.
Over this past weekend, while Federer survived seven set points to prevail in his U.S. Open championship match, there was another drama in West Point with a similar trajectory. The Black Knights of the Hudson were usually in trouble for most of their home opener against the Rhode Island Rams. A clear favorite entering the contest, Army watched its FCS (formerly, Division I-AA) opponent penetrate the red zone twice in tied games, especially with under three minutes left and the game knotted at 7-7. Outrushed and outworked for most of the day, the Black Knights didn't bring their best to Michie Stadium--not by a longshot.
However, when the going got rough against Rhode Island, Army got Ram tough.
On the Rams' first drive into the red zone, Army's Brandon Thompson forced a fumble on a 3rd and 2 play from the 17. Frank Scappaticci recovered to deny Rhode Island a go-ahead score.
Thompson, Scappaticci and the rest of the defense continued to save the day for the Brave Old Army Team. Down 7-0 in the third quarter and showing no signs of life on offense, the home folks needed a break on the banks of the Hudson, and sure enough, Thompson--whose day would not be done--recovered a fumble after Army's Jordan Murray forced it near midfield. Blessed with a great drive start and fueled with fresh momentum, Carson Williams--in relief of an injured David Pevoto--guided the boys to a tying touchdown. That, however, would be Army's only score of regulation. As the low-scoring affair became increasingly tense in the fourth quarter, it would be up to the defense to hold the fort.
Sure enough, another foray by the Rams into the Army red zone was stopped cold at the 1:56 mark of regulation. And while the visitors had a chance to take the lead with a 33-yard field goal, the Black Knights' defense had at least done enough to force their opponents to beat them.
Rhode Island couldn't get the job done, as kicker Bryan Giannecchini missed. With a touchdown, the issue would have been settled, but by making a stop and forcing a placekick, Army's defense kept the contest going.
In overtime, with a little help from the offense, the Black Knights--so mediocre for so much of the sun-splashed afternoon--would show Rhode Island how to finish off a win in crunch time.
Williams found his mojo and hit redeemed tight end Justin Larson (who had fumbled much earlier in the game) for a go-ahead touchdown in the first "half-inning" of college football's overtime system. In the bottom half, Mr. Thompson and Mr. Scappaticci would once again enter into the fray and decisively impact the proceedings.
After Rhode Island worked its way to Army's four-yard line, most folks in the stadium had to think that a tying touchdown was on its way. And especially at a struggling program, adversity winds up being expected after awhile--situationally and psychologically, it was hard to think Army's defense could dig deep and prevent the game from reaching a second overtime stanza.
But conventional wisdom was wrong. Thompson and Scappaticci--who made the third-down stop in the four-play sequence--received help from John Wright on first and goal and from Caleb Campbell on second and goal.
The prolonged drama of this overtime showdown reached its climax when the Rams prepared for a fourth and goal at the Army 2. Campbell--who helped give Army its first win of the 2005 season against Akron--gave the Black Knights their first win of this season by hauling down URI's Jimmy Hughes for no gain.
The joy that erupted from the stands--not because the moment was historic, but because a team of hard-working kids had managed to overcome adversity and win on a day when technical precision was missing from the mix.
Army didn't play football on Saturday. Stan Brock's team "worked football," and all the hard work--while not aesthetically satisfying--was supremely fulfilling on the scoreboard and in the win column.
Whenever adversity strikes over the remainder of this season, the Black Knights of the Hudson can remember the afternoon they triumphed over Rhode Island... and a lot of in-game crises.