Losses conjure up varying levels of disappointment, and so it was Saturday at Michie Stadium, when Army suffered its second last-second loss of the season, 34-31 to Tulane. This time around, players and coach alike appeared as if they’d been kicked in the stomach.
“It is real difficult because no one really understands the amount of work that we actually put in,” Army wide receiver Edgar Poe said. “The amount of practice we have and to come out and not get the results that we ultimately want is just heartbreaking. I know what my team is capable of, but we just need to make one more stop on defense and make one more play on offense. It really hurts.”
The Black Knights are 2-8, and in seven of those losses all it would have taken to turn them around was one play. A missed tackle here, a failure to convert a fourth down there. Amazing how a 60-minute game with dozens of plays on both sides of the ball can often come down to one. Saturday, each team had its choice of what play to point at and say, yes, that was it.
For Army, it was in the first quarter. The Black Knights began the game with one of its patent-pending, yardage-eating, clock-bleeding drives. Taking the opening kickoff, Army ran a 13-play, 75-yard drive that ended with quarterback Ahmad Bradshaw’s 3-yard touchdown run. Tulane went three and out, and Army got the ball back at the Tulane 42. A penalty brought the Black Knights back five yards, but Bradshaw more than made up for it with a 31-yard pass to John Trainor. Two short runs followed by an incomplete pass left Army with the ball at the 10. Dan Grochowski faced a short field goal. But the holder, DeAndre Bell, took the snap and looked to pass. Kelvin White was the target, and he did catch the ball, but did not remain inbounds. Army’s 7-0 lead remained.
“If I looked at it now I would have kicked the field goal, wouldn’t have gone for it on fourth down,” Army head coach Jeff Monken said. “Same thing as last week. I thought right there, early on, if we could go up 14‐0, what a game that would be through our first two drives. We were in position to do it. I wish we would have just run it in and run the ball, but it was a fake that we had practiced. We thought it would be there. Kelvin made a heck of a catch, was thrown just a little bit wide and came out of bounds. Just trying to win the game.”
It didn’t take long for Tulane’s game-altering play to appear. With his back to his own end zone, quarterback Tanner Lee just hoisted a ball high and far. It found the arms of Teddy Veal, who caught it at around the Army 30. Army defensive backs Chris Carnegie and Xavier Moss brushed Veal at the 10, but could not bring him down. What could have been a 14-0 lead, what almost certainly would have been at least a 10-0 lead, was now 7-7.
“We assumed they would try to throw the ball some,” Monken said. “In terms of the guys who are back, Brandon [Jackson] is the only freshman who started, we had Chris Carnegie who is a senior, Xavier Moss who is a junior and Rhyan England who is a sophomore, so we’ve got some guys back there who have at least been in football games. We assumed they would try and throw it some and they did a good job. We defended them on some plays, did a nice job and had some good pass breakups. What was disappointing was the big plays that they hit, particularly when we got the defense set where we feel like they should be in position to make a play. There was maybe a time or two where we weren’t, assignment wise, where we were supposed to be and other times they just made a play and caught the ball on us. Without seeing the film, it’s really hard to pass judgment, not knowing exactly what happened on all of those plays. The one that is most disappointing certainly is the long pass on third down from their own 10‐yard line.”
That began Tulane’s unlikely scoring marathon. On its next possession, starting with the ball at their own 42, the Green Wave had four pass completions, the last a 15-yarder from Lee to Kendall Ardoin for a 14-7 lead. Army got the ball back, and once more disaster struck. This time, Bradshaw was taken down for a 2-yard loss, then fumbled. The ball took a perfect bounce to cornerback Parry Nickerson, who picked it up and ran for a 48-yard touchdown. Army went three and out, and back came Tulane. On the fifth play of its drive, a 33-yard completion to Sherman Badie brought the ball to the Army 25. The sixth play was a Josh Rounds 25-yard run that brought the ball into the end zone for a 28-7 lead. One thing Army’s offense is not built for is coming from behind. So, naturally, the Black Knights did so.
A Bradshaw 41-yard run gave Army the ball at the Tulane 19; Bradshaw hit Trainor with a 19-yard TD pass on the next play. That made it 28-14 with 1:40 remaining in the first half. Rather than running out the clock, Tulane took a shot. And missed. The Green Wave finally needed to punt from their own 35. Then came Army linebacker Andy Davidson, who appeared to have a written invitation to meet the Tulane punter, Zachary Block. Davidson accepted the invite, blocking the punt. It came right to Ken Brinson, who picked it up and ran 21 yards for a touchdown. In 56 seconds, a 21-point deficit had been trimmed to seven.
“Our offense was doing a really great job trying to maximize on every opportunity that we had,” Brinson said. “For me, once Andy blocked that kick, I wanted to get in the end zone and make sure it was worth it.”
But if Monken had any reason to be pleased with his team for such an abrupt comeback, he wasn’t expressing it.
“The feeling was that we were playing bad,” he said. “I didn’t think we were playing very good and we told them so. We needed to play better and we told our team that we were fortunate to be in the game. We weren’t playing very good and we weren’t playing good enough for it to be 28‐21, but it was, so consider yourself fortunate.”
If those two late touchdowns were to have any effect on either team in the third quarter, it didn’t show. Neither team scored a point in the third; just 10 seconds into the fourth Grochowski’s 38-yard field goal brought the Black Knights to within four. Tulane returned the favor on its next possession, ending its drive with a 31-yard field goal from Andrew DiRocco. Army then replicated its game-opening drive. Getting the ball at its own 13 with 10:43 left, Army used some dribs, some drabs; the last play of its 87-yard, nearly 9-minute drive ended with Bradshaw hitting Poe for an 11-yard touchdown. The game was a Grochowski extra-point attempt from a tie. The snap came to A.J. Schurr, who picked up the ball and ran right, making it to the end zone for a 32-31 lead. But yellow soon became the predominant color on the field.
Off-setting penalties took those two points off the board. There was no way Army could risk another such play, so Grochowski made his kick and tied the score. Tulane got the ball back with 1:53 remaining.
“We do it every week in practice, usually twice a week, against our defense, who is really good at it and stop us a lot of times,” Lee said of his team’s 2-minute drill. “I just had visions of practice, going through it and run the routes just like they usually do. I was just throwing it in there, because I was struggling a little bit early in the game with accuracy, so just to go back and make some plays, it felt good.”
“It was awesome, especially because our young quarterback hadn’t done this before,” Tulane head coach Curtis Johnson said. “I just love the way Tanner took command of the field, he checked down to the backs, threw it to the receivers, read the defense perfectly and ran the ball when he needed to. It was one of those drives that will allow him to mature more and propel him into the future.”
For the time being, it led to Tulane’s third victory. Hilliard, who ended with a game-high 91 yards rushing, had three runs for 24 yards, the last two for a total of 10 that brought the ball to the Army 18. Tulane called time with four seconds left. Then Army did. DiRocco just stood there like he was waiting for a bus.
“In the offseason, we practice pressure all the time,” DiRocco said. “Coach actually plays a game where we have people run in front of me while I kick and scream at me. Basically, just preparing for this situation right here. When we get to it I’m so used to it at this point that I’m able to calm myself down and just focus on the goal posts and put it through.”
Which he did, kicking a 35-yard field goal as time expired. Tulane scored 45 points in its Oct. 3 victory over Central Florida; its offense had been damn-near invisible before and since. Once again, Army, in search of both a reputable offensive and defensive showing in the same game, only got the former. The post-game locker room had the same flavor as the one at halftime.
“I just told them that I was really disappointed in the way we played, that we could have won the game,” said Monken, whose team lost 17-14 to Wake Forest Oct. 19 on a last-second field goal. “We were a good enough football team to have won the game today. We didn’t play well enough. I pointed out several of the plays we talked about as the reason why. Everyone wants to know, that’s why. You can’t do these things, you can’t play fundamentally poor and expect to win.”