Say this about Army coach Jeff Monken — he's a master of improvisation.
Faced with the loss of his top three quarterbacks to injuries as he prepared the Black Knights to face UTSA on the road last Saturday, he decided to rotate two quarterbacks who had just one snap under center combined.
Final score: Army 28-16.
Monken said he had no doubt beforehand that his team would win — even though the road hasn't been kind, even though the Roadrunners had the nation's leading rusher in Sincere McCormick and had given No. 12 BYU a scare the previous week on the road while Army had barely held off The Citadel at home.
“Everybody on our offensive staff and I were completely confident that we were going to win the game because the game plan essentially took it out of the quarterback's hands," Monken said. “It just put all the responsibility on the other 10 guys to knock people around and knock ’em off the ball and create seams, and that’s what they did.
“It made the job of those two young guys a lot easier. They didn’t have to go adlib and make things happen. They just were able to do their job and settle in,” Monken said. "What was so impressive was that neither one was rattled at all. I thought they performed about as well as we could’ve expected in their first action, that’s for sure.”
Freshman starter Cade Ballard — he had that one snap in the first game of the season — only rushed three times for 5 yards, but after the Roadrunners pulled within 21-16 early in the fourth quarter Ballard responded like a veteran on the ensuing possession, guiding the Black Knights to a touchdown that put UTSA back on its heels. The drive featured Ballard's first college completion and the only one for Army in the game — a 53-yarder to senior wide receiver Cam Harrison that put the ball at the UTSA 5 — and his first career touchdown run on the next play. Ballard's partner, sophomore Tyhier Tyler, gained 95 yards on 19 carries, did not attempt a pass, and scored the lone touchdown of the third quarter on a 37-yard run, the only blemish on his performance a lost fumble in the fourth quarter that gave UTSA a chance.
Nate Woody's defense took care of that. Ranked seventh nationally in scoring defense (13.2 points per game) and eighth in total defense (284 yards per game), the Black Knights stopped the Roadrunners twice on fourth down deep in Army territory in the closing minutes. The defense also has forced 10 turnovers (six interceptions and four fumble recoveries), while the triple option under offensive coordinator Brent Davis is averaging 310 yards rushing, third nationally, and special teams have blocked three kicks, tied for first nationally.
“When the offense works well and the defense works well, we win the football game,” said Army linebacker Jon Rhattigan, who leads the team with 47 tackles, six behind the line.
It marked the second consecutive game that an Army quarterback made his first career start. The previous week it was sophomore Jemel Jones, and he led the Black Knights to a 14-9 victory over The Citadel, one of three Championship Subdivision foes on a schedule that was almost entirely changed because of the novel coronavirus pandemic. Jones suffered a leg injury in the game, providing the opening for the two newcomers to emerge.
“We were 100 percent confident,” senior tri-captain Sandon McCoy said. “You go into every game confident, but two quarterbacks that hadn’t played a snap yet, everyone else around them has to be confident to make them feel strong, make them feel confident in themselves.”
Army (5-1) has won three straight since a 24-10 loss at then-No. 14 Cincinnati and for only the fourth time since 1970 has won at least five of its first six games, a nice turnaround from last season's 5-8 mark. The 1996 squad under Bob Sutton started 9-0 and Army opened the 1985 and 1988 seasons with a 5-1 record under Jim Young.
The victory also ended Army’s six-game skid in away or neutral games and was the 53-year-old Monken's 45th in seven seasons at West Point, tied for third all-time with Charles Daly.
“It was just a testament to our culture, just our brotherhood,” Monken said. “The first touchdown we scored I remember everyone was running down and we were all screaming, ‘Culture! Culture!’ because we know this team is founded on culture.
"We’re not the most talented, we’re not the fastest, we’re not the strongest, but we care about each other. At the end of the day, it’s our culture that wins games.”
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