Army had the lead, but now it was time for the Black Knights’ to exhibit their patent-pending, teeth-grinding offense. No 50-yard passes or highlight-film end arounds. No, this was Army football. Eight different players – including two quarterbacks – ran the ball in a 20-play, 84-yard drive that accumulated an amazing 11 minutes, 13 seconds through most of the third quarter and almost two minutes into the fourth. The final play was a 1-yard Larry Dixon touchdown, giving Army a 28-10 lead.
Army’s fourth touchdown, but not their last. Good thing, too, because Fordham spent much of the rest of the game striking long and hard. The Black Knights ended with a 42-31 victory Saturday at Michie Stadium. It wasn’t easy.
“I am proud of our team,” Army head coach Jeff Monken said. “I am proud of the effort in the second half. I did feel that we didn’t play particularly well in the first half. Just the fact that we couldn’t move the ball very effectively. We were giving up a lot of easy throws and not contesting those throws and not having a pass rush. Going into halftime I felt like we couldn’t play any worse than we were playing.”
Perhaps. But Army still had a 14-10 lead thanks to a play that may have proven to be the game’s turning point. Fordham punter Joe Pavlik, punting out of his end zone, had his kick blocked by Josh Jenkins. The ball rolled around in the end zone for a few seconds before the Black Knights’ Lamar Johnson-Harris pounced on it with five seconds remaining. Fordham held the ball for almost 19 minutes in the first half, came close to doubling Army’s total offense, including a passing advantage of 173 yards to 5. And Army had the lead.
“They put me in the right spot,” Jenkins said. “I dipped my shoulder and by the time I got there, I dove for the ball and made a play on it. We had them backed up and we needed a play at that time. Our coaches put me in a great position and allowed me to get the block and LJ just fell on the ball.”
“I was fortunate enough to have Josh Jenkins make a good play,” Johnson-Harris said. “I heard the roar from the crowd and I turned around and was lucky enough to make a play and dive on the ball.”
“It was huge,” Dixon said. “You have to talk about [Johnson-Harris], he made a gigantic play. Josh Jenkins came in there and got the block and LJ scooped it up in the end zone. That just shows how we’re a team. Our offense was struggling in the first half and we leaned on our defense and special teams, and they stepped up for us.”
Not quite the perspective held by the Rams.
“There was a tangible shift in momentum heading into the locker room,” Fordham coach Jim Moorhead said. “A blocked punt is a momentum shifter in any game, especially when it is recovered for a touchdown. We tried to reinforce that it was still a four-point game at that point and that we would have opportunities. We told the team that we had a great special-teams play that gave us a touchdown and one that gave up a touchdown so it was a push at one point. That one play didn’t cost us the game, but it did give Army some momentum going into halftime.”
That great play by Fordham’s special teams occurred on the Rams’ third possession of the game. They already led 3-0 thanks to a 40-yard field by Mike Marando the first time they had the ball. This time, Fordham, facing a fourth and 16 at the Army 29 set up for a punt. But rather than kick, Joe Pavlick lofted a pass that scraped the clouds. It was batted around in the end zone until Fordham’s Marc DeSisto came up with the ball. That looked dire for Army against a team that was averaging almost 44 points per game.
“It is something we have worked on the entire season, it’s really a call for when you’re in a position where you can’t make the field goal because it’s out of your range and you’re too tight in to punt because you’re really not going to gain anything if the ball goes into the end zone,” Moorhead said. “It is a call we made and the kids executed it well. Essentially you want the defense to think it is a punt, you send your punter in and then hopefully the other team doesn’t see that it’s not kicked. Actually, Army was in a safe look and not in a punt look which is the worst setup possible to have it against, but we felt the yardage we would have gained with a punt wouldn’t have garnered us anything.”
At that point, Monken lifted starting quarterback Angel Santiago and replaced him with A.J. Schurr. Schurr made an immediate impact, rushing for 54 yards on the third play. He got shaken up on the run, and was replaced by Santiago. Santiago ran for three, then Terry Baggett finished it with a 6-yard touchdown run with 9:20 left in the first half. The next score was off the blocked punt.
The Black Knights took the opening second-half kickoff and went eight plays and 65 yards in less than five minutes. Dixon was responsible for all but six of those yards; he scored on a 6-yard run to give Army a 21-10 lead. Army’s next drive was that marathon for the 28-10 lead.
It took the Rams, 10-2, just one play to respond, when quarterback Mike Nebrich hit wide receiver Mike Wetzel with a 65-yard touchdown pass. Army increased its lead to 35-17 with a 75-yard drive, completed by a 30-yard Dixon run for a touchdown. Fordham got the ball back, and this time it took them four plays to get into the end zone, when Nebrich’s third pass of the drive found Tebucky Jones Jr. for a touchdown.
“I think it is just an example of how we can’t rely on being a one-play drive team,” Monken said. “If we go out there and chuck it three times and punt and they score on a one-play drive we wouldn’t have run a lot of time off the clock if we were that type of a football team. To be able to sustain a drive and keep it away from them, we limited their opportunities to do that. We went out there and scored on a five- or six-minute drive and they came right back at us and four plays later they were in the end zone again, so it’s clear they are capable of doing that and we didn’t do a great job on that one play that we got beat over the top. The sustained drives are important for our football team. It helps our defense as much as it helps our offense.”
Those lengthy Army drives — coupled with Fordham’s quick scores — left the Black Knights with the ball in the second half for 23:54 Fordham, in contrast, had the ball for only 6:06 in the second half, including just 109 seconds in the third. Fordham ended the game with 471 yards of total offense; Army had 430. But in customary Army fashion, 382 of those yards were gained on the ground.
Trailing 35-24, Fordham attempted an onside kick that Army recovered. It took just short of three minutes for Raymond Maples to get into the end zone for Army’s final touchdown. The Rams weren’t done, though, and Nebrich hit pay dirt one more time with a 51-yard TD pass to Adam Malkiewicz with 15 seconds left in the game.
The Black Knights’ game against Navy awaits, of course, but this was the final home game for Army seniors. Dixon’s sentiments seemed to capture that of the team.
“It was awesome,” he said. “The most important thing was that we got the win. If you ask me next year how many yards I ran for, I won’t remember. I’ll remember that I stepped on the field with these seniors and that’s what matters, that’s why I came here. Football is a great thing and I’m happy that I get to play it; it’s one of the most important things in my life. But the brotherhood is what matters to me.”