Army Black Knights defensive back Josh Jenkins (39) celebrates after intercepting a pass at Michie Stadium. (Danny Wild / USA Today)
WEST POINT, N.Y. — Don’t mention moral victory to the Army Black Knights. It’s not in their lexicon.
So, despite a spirited effort against No. 5 Stanford that ended in a 34-20 loss on Saturday, there were no smiles on their faces. The chance to become the first Army team since 1972 to beat a ranked team was gone.
“We wanted to win that game,” said Army defensive end Robert Kough, who batted down Stanford’s first pass of the game to get his teammates even more charged-up in front of the sellout Michie Stadium crowd. “I think they respect us a lot more than they did when they were preparing for us during the week. That’s something we’ll take and put toward next week.”
Stanford (2-0) went to the locker room at halftime leading Army (1-2) only 20-13, then rode its stout defense and the bruising running and soft hands of Tyler Gaffney to a decisive second half. Gaffney finished with 132 yards rushing, scoring on a 23-yard reception in the third quarter and 1-yard run in the fourth.
“We played hard enough,” Army coach Rich Ellerson said. “We didn’t play well enough against an opponent that doesn’t give you much margin for error. We competed. We continued to fight. We continued to play hard. Emotionally, our guys were in a good place. When I say that, I mean they were as emotional as I’ve ever seen them, but they used the emotion and didn’t fall off the edge.”
Army, a 30-point underdog, played Stanford to a near standstill the first two quarters, the much smaller Black Knights gaining a 6-0 lead after forcing the game’s first turnover.
“We come into every game believing we have a chance to win,” Army quarterback Angel Santiago said. “We were moving the ball and driving on them, but every now and then we would have a mental mistake, and that can’t happen.”
The most critical mistake came in the third quarter. Trailing 20-13 and poised to tie the game, Army self-destructed when Santiago botched a third-down handoff after the Black Knights had driven into Stanford territory, and James Vaughters recovered the fumble for the Cardinal. Ty Montgomery’s 27-yard catch on a third-and-7 play set up Gaffney’s touchdown catch and the Cardinal were in control.
“We didn’t play the game we wanted to play,” said tailback Terry Baggett, who led Army with 96 yards rushing on just nine carries. “Our goal coming into the game was to win. There were about three offensive plays that changed this game. We have to make those plays every time. It’s a step in the right direction, but it’s not the final step for us.”
Army failed on a fourth-and-1 play early in the fourth quarter inside its own 30 and the Cardinal secured the victory on Gaffney’s 1-yard run.
“We kept our calm. We tried to keep an even keel,” Gaffney said after his second straight solid performance following a year of minor league baseball. “We went out there knowing that six points wasn’t going to win the game. We went out there with the same mindset, keep grinding. We didn’t overlook them. We had to keep grinding. We were down. Adversity stepped in and we responded.”
Army’s triple option led the nation in rushing the past two years, averaging a school-record 369.8 yards per game and accumulating 4,438 yards on the ground in 2012. Despite the loss of four-year starter Trent Steelman at quarterback, Army entered Saturday’s game on pace for another strong year, averaging 329 yards rushing in splitting their first two games.
Not quite so effective against the Cardinal without Raymond Maples and Larry Dixon, who were hurt in the game and sat much of it, the Black Knights still finished with 284 yards rushing on 61 carries.
“They came out there with a little bit different approach than what we had seen,” said defensive end Josh Mauro, who led Stanford with seven tackles. “It just took guys having the will to do their jobs. We made some adjustments in the second half to stop the inside run. We got the look all week, but it’s so much different when you’re actually doing it. All the credit to them. They played their butts off.”
Montgomery had six catches for 130 yards and one score, while Kevin Hogan was 11 of 18 for 188 yards passing and three touchdowns for Stanford.
“What I love about the team today is that, when people tell you you’re supposed to win the game by a lot, you come in at halftime and it’s close, if you listened to the outside people you’d get a little anxious,” Stanford coach David Shaw said. “In the locker room at halftime, we were not anxious. We knew we had to play our best, came out in the second half, and played great.”