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ANALYSIS

Army football seeks answers after a disappointing season

By JUSTIN FEDICH | The Times Herald-Record, Middletown, N.Y. | Published: December 18, 2019

PHILADELPHIA (Tribune News Service) — It's a question that has been weighing on everyone's minds. Jeff Monken hadn't been able to reflect on the answer because there were still more games to play, more chances to rewrite the narrative.

At his postgame press conference at Lincoln Financial Field on Saturday, Monken, the head coach of an Army team that had just gotten "whooped" by Navy 31-7, spoke with some clarity about the big picture. About where it all went wrong this season.

He started with an outcome from 2018.

"Maybe one of the worst things to ever happen to us," Monken said, "was taking Oklahoma to overtime a year ago."

The sixth-year Army coach spoke in no absolutes, only conjecture of why practice and preparation only produced heartbreak and disappointment in a year when those feelings were supposed to be few and far between. He brought up the Oklahoma overtime game, a 28-21 defeat in Norman against an eventual No. 1 overall draft pick at quarterback. Then, Monken pivoted to Michigan in week two of this season, when Army lost 24-21 in double overtime.

He had no definite theory on why the Black Knights were 11-2 one year and 5-8 the next. But this was his best guess.

"I could feel some of the air let out of our balloon a little bit," Monken said Saturday of coming up just short at Michigan, "and you don't want one game to make a season but our guys really believed they were going to win. Thought they could win. We had a chance to win and we didn't."

There are other reasons, of course, that Army faltered and flailed through a hopeless 2019 campaign. Chief among them were the slew of injuries that befell the Black Knights, combined with the lack of top-tier talent from last year's unit.

Still, there is a mental component often overlooked. The underreported fact that no player truly forgets a game and moves on with a blank slate. The results linger, especially when the what-ifs are too plentiful to count.

Three days after Army lost to Michigan, on Sept. 10, the players talked about using that experience as a learning tool moving forward. Slotback Artice Hobbs said taking Michigan to the brink was a sign that Army can hang with any team in the country. (This was a slight miscalculation.) When asked about the mental toll a game like that can take, Hobbs said he and his teammates can't dwell on the woulda, coulda, shouldas. But, he admitted, "Easier said than done."

Fullback Connor Slomka lost a fumble late in the game against Navy, as Army was attempting to mount an unlikely comeback. The players had preached constantly about securing the ball better and avoiding silly penalties, but they never could revert to their 2018 selves in that respect. After Michigan, Slomka was hard on himself, knowing that a few costly penalties shifted the momentum of an upset Army once held firmly in its grasp.

He said the following Tuesday, "I've got to live with that."

Even cornerback Elijah Riley, who was ready then to focus on the next contest at University of Texas at San Antonio, acknowledged the blown opportunity the weekend prior. "The potential was there," he said. "We should have put them away. We didn't."

If it is the Michigan hangover that derailed the season, as Monken suggested after Navy, then that is as much a critique of the coaching than it is of the players' mental fortitude. After winning by a touchdown over Rice in the opener, Army lost four one-possession games the remainder of the season. In the past three years, the Black Knights were 14-5 in one-score outcomes. Last season, losing in overtime to the best opponent on the schedule fueled the team to nine consecutive victories. Entering Michigan, Army had won 10 straight and was a play here, a play there, from being the team everyone was talking about in college football.

"Perhaps maybe that took some of our mojo, or whatever," Monken said. "I don't know. We just never seemed to be playing as well as we were capable of playing."

There are more concrete ways to describe this wash of a season. The shuffling-along offensive line provided inconsistent protection. The defense gave up too many big plays. Kelvin Hopkins was almost never fully healthy at quarterback. Same with Jaylon McClinton at safety.

Whether the main culprit was mental anguish or physical damage, a five-win season wasn't good enough to make anyone satisfied. Monken knows the onus falls on him to ensure 2019 is a fluke and not a trend.

"I was searching and I'm continuing to search," Monken said. "And we're going to get it fixed."

jfedich@th-record.com

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