Jeff Monken denied it, of course, but a man who has spent his life as a football coach couldn’t but have a couple of uh ohs lurking in the back of his brain. If so, the Army head coach barely showed it. He was stalking the sidelines as is his habit, but for a man whose team had lost its first three games – including one on a last-second field goal the previous week – and had won just four of 14 games in his two years at West Point, having a 19-point lead reduced to six made feeling consternation a definite option.
Uh oh, right?
“There was no panic when Eastern Michigan came back; we were more ticked off with giving up a couple of scores,” he said. “We gave up one score and turned around and fumbled on the second play of the next drive and gave them a short field. They had a one-play drive where we missed an assignment and that was frustrating. We were just upset we let them come back and let them cut it to six. But our guys responded and got a score, got a stop and scored again.”
That 36-30 lead eventually evolved into a 58-36 victory. The only upset that eventually existed for the Black Knights was beating a team on the road. It was Army’s first road victory since defeating Duke in 2010.
“Winning on the road was no picnic,” he said. “It’s been quite some time since we’ve done that. But we’re playing better and we’re improving as a football team. We’ll certainly need to continue to do that this week. We’ll need to play our very best football to have a chance to be in the game.”
The team Army is visiting this week is Penn State, and more than a few distractions exist. Beaver Stadium customarily packs in over 100,000 fans. Penn State is Penn State. And, yes, they’re talented. Teams that choose to compete in the Big 10 better be.
“We’re going to prepare our football team for Saturday and we’re looking forward to the opportunity to play in such a special setting and a stadium that’s renowned for its great crowds,” Monken said.
Preparing for any game, much less against a legendary program, is tough, but it’s a lot easier doing so following a victory, even more so after losing three games by a combined total of 10 points. Teams that are 0-3 can either be bad teams or teams just not playing good enough. Give Army the benefit of the doubt and choose option No. 2.
“It was nice to see us put the whole thing together and get some key stops when we needed them on defense,” Monken said. “We made some plays on offense to set up some scores and we made some plays on special teams to keep drives alive. There were some things that we’ll need to work on and improve. It was nice for those kids, who have been playing really, really hard, to experience a victory. We were in desperate need of having that feeling of victory and I was glad they were able to do that.”
After a drab rushing game the first three weeks, Army broke through the glass ceiling against Eastern Michigan, gaining 556 yards on the ground. Monken had spoken of waiting for one running back breaking through and establishing himself as the man. Aaron Kemper has surely become a candidate after running for 147 yards Saturday. But while Kemper led the team in rushing, he was one of six Black Knights to gain at least 60 yards; as such, Monken said he still intends to spread the ball around.
“I don’t know that he emerged as the guy that clearly set himself apart from everybody else,” Monken said. “He had a really good game, but Matt Giachinta had a good game too. He had a run there in the first quarter going toward the building, as we looked at it from our right to left on the sideline, where he ran out of two tackles. He stepped out of one where the guy was hanging all over his legs. I thought it was a really good run. I think every time [Drue Harris] plays and touches the ball he looks better. He made a really nice cut on that trap play that we scored on [for Army’s final touchdown]. It was a one-play drive after they had turned the ball over on downs late in the game, and we handed it to him and he scored making a really nice cut. I think all those guys are doing some really good things, good enough at this point that I don’t want to keep them on the bench all day and say ‘Okay, this guy is going to get all the carries.’ ”
Army quarterback Ahmad Bradshaw suffered a bad ankle sprain when he was tackled running in the first quarter against Eastern Michigan. He stayed in for one more play, made a hand off, then left the game. He did not return. A.J.Schurr took over. He rushed 10 times for 67 yards and completed three of seven passes for 70 yards. Bradshaw continues to rehab, but Monken said a definitive decision as to who will start will not be made until late this week.
“We’re hopeful he’ll be ready to play this Saturday,” he said. “Right now, we don’t know. He didn’t play the second half and had we been able to play him, we would have. We have a great training staff and I know they’ll take great care of him and have him as close as they can be to having him ready. I thought A.J. Schurr did a great job when he came in off the bench. He kept the game going and made some great plays himself, both running the ball and throwing the ball. I hope we’ll have Bradshaw ready to go and have both of those guys available to play.”
Those 556 rushing yards earned by the Black Knights moved them from 46th place (207.3 yards) to ninth (294.5) nationally. Army has finished in the top eight in each of the last five years, and was the national rushing leader in 2012 and 2013.