The Army Black Knights played their best game of the 2019 season on Saturday against the Air Force Falcons. It wasn’t enough.
By Matt Zemek
Army should feel very good that it finally played at a high level. The Black Knights couldn’t execute a lot of the basic components of football, but on Saturday, the urgency of a Commander In Chief’s Trophy game – which required Army to defend the CIC Trophy it has won each of the last two years – brought out the best in Jeff Monken’s team.
The tissue-soft defense which allowed opponents to move the ball consistently (and sometimes at will) was nowhere to be found against Air Force. The Falcons put together two compete scoring drives in the second half but were turned away for the rest of the game.
How resolute was Army’s defense? Twice, Air Force created a 10-play drive which ate at least 5:45 off the clock… and had to punt. Army leveraged field position and forced Air Force to drive long distances in short amounts. Another Air Force drive covered 77 yards in nine plays… and ended with a field goal. Army defended its own third of the field as well as in any game since the opener against Rice.
Air Force’s offense is far more formidable than Rice’s.
This was Army’s true defensive gem of the year, even more than against Michigan. The Wolverines’ offense was a total mess when it faced Army. This Air Force offense had been playing well when the Black Knights arrived in Colorado Springs. This was the standard of play Monken had been looking for from his defense.
If you had been told before this game that Army would win the turnover battle, you would have said Army had a real chance to win. If you had been told before this game that Army would outpass (!) Air Force by roughly 200 yards, you would have first questioned the sanity of the person who told you that. THEN you would have assumed Army would have won.
Somehow, it didn’t happen.
Army threw for 214 yards, Air Force only 16. Air Force has generally been the more versatile and balanced offensive team in Commander In Chief’s Trophy games. Troy Calhoun doesn’t run a pure triple option. He has steadily used many different concepts to keep opposing defenses off balance. Yet, on Saturday, Army brought the passing attack and showed an ability to move the ball in different ways. Army even hit an 87-yard pass play for a touchdown right after Air Force scored its first touchdown of the day. Jabari Laws – who was terrific in this game – hit Camden Harrison for a catch-and-run strike in open space to give Army renewed hope of an upset and a 13-10 third-quarter lead.
Air Force fought hard for a late 17-13 advantage. The Falcons made a goal-line stand in the first half, which set the tone for a full afternoon of jousting. Air Force was sometimes on its heels against Army’s energy and effort, but the Falcons resolutely answered every attempt Army made to take control of the game.
Air Force’s offense could not finish drives, but the defense stood tall, ultimately allowing no touchdowns other than that 87-yard pass in the third quarter.
The day began with one goal-line stand. It ended with another stop in a goal-to-go situation.
Army was dealt a very bad break when, just before that sequence of goal-to-go plays at the end of the game, Laws – who finished 9 of 11 passing – was injured on a hit from an Air Force defender. Kelvin Hopkins entered, and with that, Army’s edge in the passing game vanished.
This made Army’s first-down call – a pass – a curious move. Air Force then stopped a second-down run, creating third and goal from the 5. Zane Lewis of the Falcons broke up the third-down pass, and a subsequent fourth-down pass attempt wasn’t especially close.
Army showed how well it could play after weeks of deficient performances. Air Force – which allowed its game against Navy to slip away late – didn’t let this game tumble through its fingers.
As a result, Army will not win the CIC Trophy outright for a third straight season. It can only share it by beating Navy in December.
Army will next face a UMass team which got obliterated this past weekend by Liberty. Air Force will take on a New Mexico side which has allowed 31 or more points in a majority of its games this season. The Lobos lost to Nevada late Saturday night.
Navy got its game out of the way on Friday night before Army and Air Force dueled. The Midshipmen took care of business against Connecticut the way Ken Niumatalolo hoped they would. A goal-line stand at the end of the first half preserved a 28-10 lead and enabled the Midshipmen to play the second half without any scoreboard pressure. The triple option, expertly guided by Malcolm Perry, cruised past UConn, 56-10, to give Navy a low-stress game before a rest break which will lead into the Nov. 16 game against Notre Dame. Navy and Notre Dame might both be ranked at kickoff time.
Navy always cherishes the opportunity to play Notre Dame – and it should – but the game looming on Nov. 23 against SMU could make the Midshipmen’s season. With Memphis beating SMU, and with Cincinnati playing Memphis on Nov. 29, Navy knows that if it goes 2-0 against SMU and Houston, it will have a great chance to win the AAC West and face Cincinnati in the AAC Championship Game on Dec. 7.