Big plays and big mistakes cost Army a big game Saturday afternoon, and as a result they were run out of Michie Stadium 42-22 by Air Force.
Coach Rich Ellerson volunteered to take all the blame, but this was an equal opportunity disaster. Not to mention losing All-American defensive end Josh McNary to a hamstring injury at the end of the first quarter would only make what eventually turn out bad, worse.
More accurate, Air Force was just a better team.
The visitors scored on two long passes, one for 53 yards and the other 63, then grabbed a fumble out the air and went 52 yards for another score.
As if that wasn't enough, with under a minute to play in the first half and Army trailing only 14-13, Trent Steelman had a pass intercepted at midfield which was returned 32 yards to the Army 23.
Faster than you could say good-bye to the Commander In Chief's Trophy, Air Force went off with a 21-13 lead.
The Black Knights closed to within 21-16 on Alex Carlton's 46-yard field goal, his longest of the season, but soon after the Air Force was off into the wild blue yonder.
"We're hurtin' a little bit,'' Ellerson said about the emotional state of the team. Smiling, then chuckling, he stammered a bit before saying, "We didn't do enough well. We didn't coach well enough we didn't play well enough. It's not a mystery.
"That had a chance to be a great football game,'' he offered. "It wasn't. And that's devastating to our guys because there was no lack of effort, no lack of caring, there was no lack of investment. But we didn't do the things we consistently do and have consistently done that have given us a chance in every football game. The truth is, and you can look the guys in the locker room in the eye and say, 'Guys, there's not a game we've won this year that we could win playing that way.'
"We know how to do this, we're better than that. And frankly we just didn't put our best foot forward, and that's a shame. We weren't up to it, and that's on me.''
We know how to do this, we're better than that. And frankly we just didn't put our best foot forward, and that's a shame. We weren't up to it, and that's on me.
- Army Head Coach, Rich Ellerson
After Carlton's field goal pulled Army within five points with 2:22 remaining in the third quarter, Air Force started its next possession on its own 27. The Falcons were faced with a third and one, and a big stop could have set Army up with some serious momentum.
Instead it set Air Force up for the kill.
A pass to a wide-open Jon Warzeka connected with the 5-foot-9 junior around the 40, and he no problem winning the race into the end zone.
Now it was 28-16.
The teams exchanged punts in their opening possessions of the fourth quarter, and Army had the ball again with a first down at midfield.
What followed was a play that Steelman and fullback Jared Hassin still couldn't explain at the press conference. Hassin hit the line with the handoff and suddenly the ball was in the air.
And going the other way was linebacker Jordan Waiwaiole, who ironically was one of Hassin's best friends when he initially enrolled at Air Force two years ago. His buddy took off 52 yards the other way, and suddenly the game was over.
Air Force 35; USMA 16.
Army responded with an 80-yard drive to pull within 35-22, but even with plenty of time remaining in the game it was quite obvious that Army was not going to pull this one out.
As Ellerson said, turnovers, penalties, precision, "all those nasty little details.''
Second in the nation in rushing yards, Air Force finished with 277, well below its 313.56 average. But it wasn't as if Army didn't know what was coming. The Falcons average 56 runs per game and 13 passes. Today then ran the ball 53 times and threw it 7.
Not having one its better tackling days didn't help Army either.
"They run hard,'' Ellerson said of Air Force, "but I'm a little disappointed in our ability to get people down. But we've seen that before. That's a system challenge and something we've managed to deal with with our effort, and that was the case today.
"We gave ourselves chances. If we can eliminate the big play, if we can get ourselves a takeaway, not turn the ball over, we could be having a different discussion right now.''
One discussion was held on the very first decision of the game. Army moved from its own 40 and had a first down at the 22. Hassin gained five, then two, then Pat Mealy picked up two more.
Fourth and one.
Field goal. From 30.
No sending Air Force a message? No confidence in gaining just one yard to jump on the Falcons and go up 7-0. Because you know Air Force is going to score some points.
"It was a little bit more than one,'' Ellerson said of the distance. "We'd been to this movie before and left it down there the other way, so we thought at that point with the chance to take the lead, we'd take the lead.''
After forcing Air Force on a three-and-out, Army increased its lead. It came right back and picked up a couple of first downs and moved inside the 30. Three runs didn't move the markers, so it was another field goal.
Things were looking good then, a 6-0 lead and stuffing the Falcons on their first drive. But it didn't last long.
Air Force marched 67 yards to go ahead 7-6, then a few minutes later hit the 53-yard TD pass when Donovan Travis lost his footing which left Warzeka all alone.
Army came right back, answering with a 60-yard drive to close within 14-13. Senior Jacob Bohn caught his first TD pass from Steelman, from 18 yards out.
But then Steelman would throw his first interception of the year a bit later, making Army the last team in the country to throw an interception.
It would only get worse.
"Unfortunately, the only pick I throw all year comes back to haunt us,'' Steelman said. "It was a two-man route but the corner got in front of the ball and picked it off.''
Sophomore defensive end A.J. Mackey, in on seven tackles and forcing a fumble, wouldn't let his coach take the hit. "It's a team effort,'' he said. "He's going to want to take the responsibility, but it falls on us
we didn't play as hard as we needed to play. We had the keys to win and the will to win, but we didn't show up on all cylinders.
"Ultimately it's about responsibility. That's what it comes down to - everybody doing their job and not trying to cover up for somebody else's job.''
Although the CIC trophy belongs to the Air Force, and although Army still needs a win to become bowl eligible, all is of course not lost.
Well, maybe somewhere under the sofa cushions.
"I don't worry about our team being excited to play, excited to prepare or excited about what's next. We're just not going to be very excited for a couple of days,'' Ellerson said. "This is tough.''
• Hassin went over 100 yards rushing for the fourth straight game, tying an Army record for consecutive 100-yard games. He is the sixth player to do so, the last being Michael Wallace in 2000.
• Ellerson said there were no serious injuries and everyone will be available next week at Kent State. Defensive end Josh McNary spent the majority of the day on the sidelines with a hamstring issue suffered in practice, but should be ready to go against Kent State next Saturday.
• Also dinged up during the game was free safety Donovan Travis, who was replaced by sophomore Ty Sharder. Although Travis did not return to the game, his injury did not appear too serious and should be good to go against Kent State.
• Cornerback Antuan Aaron did not play today and hopefully the junior will be ready to go next weekend. Former starting cornerback and present day safety Jordan Trimble receive the bulk of reps in Aaron's spot.
• The visiting Falcons honored armed forces personnel serving around the world by wearing special uniforms, a replica of the flying suits worn by the Thunderbirds. The jerseys were a shade of Navy blue with white letters outlined in red. The signature bolts on the sleeves were also outlined in red. The pants were white with blue and red stripes, and the helmets replicated the Thunderbirds: base white with and red and blue stars on the back. Names on the backs of jerseys were replaced by the words freedom (on even-numbered jerseys) and service (on odd-numbered jerseys). They wore the same uniforms against Navy last month.
Army countered with its "dress grays'' a first-time look that had black pant stripes, and "West Point'' written across the shoulders in black. The helmets were black.
• Coming into the game, Army's five wins had come against teams with a combined record of 11-30. Its three losses had come against teams with a combined record of 18-7.
• Among the special guests along press row was New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi and former Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Boomer Esiason. Also on hand was former Army public address announcer Dom Alagia, whose voice at West Point was heard for 32 years, including 15 Army-Navy games.
• Four paratroopers floated onto Blaik Field before the game, all of whom had logged more than 630 jumps.
It was Army's best execution of the day.
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