Army could not afford to "get better" as the game progressed, which happen to be the case against NIU in the Black Knights' season opener.
Going against the Aztecs of San Diego State, Army needed to come out of the gate smoking .... unfortunately under perfect football weather conditions and in front of an crowd of 26,778, the host failed to follow the script.
On the first series of the game and SDSU's second play from scrimmage, quarterback Ryan Lindley launched a 68 yard bomb to wide receiver Colin Lockett and the speedster who had at least a 5 yards stride ahead of freshman cornerback L.J. Harris, ran underneath the pass of six points.
So, thirty-three seconds into the game, it appeared that Army was more comfortable with following last weekend's script versus embracing the "coming out of the box early and strong" storyline.
However, the Black Knights had yet to touch the ball, and many Black Knight observers have felt that where the defense is lacking, the offense would be the equalizer.
And it appeared that is exactly what would begin to unfold. But on a 3rd & 7 on the Aztecs' 44 yard line, freshman fullback Larry Dixon had the ball stripped from his hands, for one of an amazing eight fumbles on the day by the Army offense.
Following the Script
However, on SDSU's next possession, the Army defense came out more aggressive, as frosh strong safety Hayden Pierce's blitz disrupted Lindley's comfort in the pocket on a 1st & 15 that netted a intentional grounding call, which was followed by great coverage from veteran cornerback, Josh Jackson.
But once again, the offense remained in dress rehearsal mode, because on 2nd and 8 from their own 36, quarterback Trent Steelman fumbled and SDSU regains possession. Three plays later, elusive running back and NFL prospect Ronnie Hillman breaks through 2 defenders around the left end and hit paydirt from 16 yards out, giving the Aztecs a early 14-0 lead.
After the Aztecs scored, the now quiet crowd saw the Black Knights respond with a 11 play, 71 yard drive that was highlighted by quarterback Trent Steelman's great fake and keeper up the middle for 28 yards.
The first quarter offensive stats were a reflection of the character of both teams. Army had accumulated 118 yards in total offense on 23 plays, while SDSU totaled 117 yards on just 12 plays.
Now staying true to form, the Army "D" who was playing minus defensive tackle Jarrett Mackey, forced SDSU to punt once again.
And the Steelman lead offense returned the favor by marching 82 yards in 15 plays, while taking 7:23 off the clock and not to mention a 14-14 tie, with 6:57 remaining in the 1st half.
The balance of the 1st half was a stalemate as both squad went into halftime to regroup and get ready for an exciting 2nd half of football.
The plus side for Army coming into the 2nd half of the game was their very effective balance attack.
Steelman was leading the charge with 84 yards on 13 carries, the distribution saw the following back and their associated carries/yards; Trenton Turrentine (7/13); Raymond Maples (6/22); [db]Jonathan Crucitti 5/26); Malcolm Brown (4/29); Jared Hassin 4/23) and Dixon (2/5).
The 3rd quarter saw both teams, like a heavyweight championship bout go toe-to-toe. When the dust hand settled in the 3rd, the Aztecs had scored the lone touchdown, but missed the extra point ... as the teams entered the final stanza with SDSU barely holding onto a 20-14 lead.
The 4th quarter would have physical and emotional ups and downs, along with plenty of thrills, no matter who you were routing for.
One such play kicked off the final quarter, as Coach Rich Ellerson decided to go for it on 4th & 1 at the Black Knights' 39 yard line and the offense did not let him down.
Junior slotback Malcolm Brown, who was very impressive throughout the afternoon, took the pitch from Steelman around the right end and hurdled and skated his way for 31 yards.
Three plays later, Steelman on a quarterback draw from 17 yards out ties the score and all that left to send the crowd over the top is Alex Carlton's PAT.
Unfortunately, like SDSU's Abelardo Perez's previous PAT attempt, Carlton's slides to left and leaves the teams in a deadlock.
With 11:15 remaining, the Aztecs make what could be their final bid of the afternoon, especially in the manner that the Army offense had been able to run big chunks off the clock.
After a few plays, SDSU was faced with a 3rd & 8, 9:49 remaining and crowd is on its feet cheering the Army defense on. The 6-foot-4, 230 Lindley drops deep in the pocket and with pressure from the Army front, heaves a pass to the center of the end zone, however the closes player to the ball is Army cornerback L.J. Harris. The frosh makes a needless jump for the ball and it bounces off his chest and hits the turf.
As the ball hits the ground, you could almost feel the wind go out of sails of the Black Knights' fans. Next play saw Perez redeem himself, as he launched a perfect field goal strike from 42 yards out and 23-20 Aztec lead.
There was more than enough time for Army to not only tie the game, but take the lead. And delinquently, that was beginning to unfold, as well as time evaporating off the clock as they started their march from their own 25 yard line (9:232 remaining).
After several plays, Army was faced with another 4th down decision, but this was a no brainer. With Matt Jenkins under center, because was previously injured, the team was faced with a 4th & 3 (4:50 remaining).
Just before he is hit, Jenkins makes the pitch to Maples, who made a great 2nd effort and rambled for 6 yards, as the Army is bringing the house down.
Re-entered Steelman and there is little doubt that this pre-September 11th script is going to having an Army win written all over it.
But more reminiscent of last year's ball game against Hawaii, Steelman is hurt for the 2nd time and unable to return.
Re-entered Jenkins, who takes over after a fumble and yards lost on the previous play, his incomplete pass, a false start by Maples and a 3rd down sack of Jenkins... the final story line is not how the Army fans would have liked.
On 4th and 25 from the 40 yard line of SDSU and out of field goal position, Jenkins final pass to Jared McFarlin falls short and so did the Army hopes against San Diego State.
There is little doubt that the Army Black Knight got better from last week to this week. Unfortunately, their mistakes were costly and too much for them to overcome.
"We grew so much as competitors from week one to week two," said Army head coach Rich Ellerson after the game.
Was today's lost to a very talented San Diego State team part of this 2011 separated itself from 2010 and developing its own identity? Was this a major step in the right direction, especially with Big Ten opponent Northwestern arriving at Michie on September 17th?
"I don't know how good we, but we are a tough, tough football team. We've got to be a better football team We've got to do the things that correlate with winning," adds Ellerson.
Offensively, the Black Knights will hard for almost every defense they face to shut them down ... assuming they bring this level of intensity to each contest. Although positive, forget stats for a moment and it very easy to say that this was the best effort by slotback Raymond Maples and Malcolm Brown as a duo. They played big time and if you add Hassin, Dixon, Turrentine and Crucitti ... this running game should keep Army in every single game.
"They're not scoring a lot of points but they're moving the ball methodically down field which keeps your offense on the sidelines, so it's hard for your offense to get into a rhythm," said SDSU head coach, Rocky Long. "The more they inch it down field, the more of a rhythm they get into and as soon as you try to plug one hole, another hole opens up. If it wasn't for all the turnovers, the game might have not been close the other way."
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