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IN THE HEAT OF COMPETITION, ARMY KEEPS ITS COOL


It is a scenario which continues to emerge year after year in football, and it’s the scenario the Army Black Knights relied upon in their final two games of 2016, the two games which made this season the resplendent and memorable success that it was.

If at third you don’t succeed, try and try again.

Wait, isn’t that supposed to be first instead of third?

No, it’s not a misprint.

The meaning of the statement is easier to explain than you might first think.

The Ohio State Buckeyes are preparing for their College Football Playoff semifinal in the Fiesta Bowl against Clemson. The Buckeyes are in that game for many reasons, but one of the foremost ones is that before their controversial fourth-down conversion against Michigan, they needed a play bold enough to save them from a much worse situation.

You might recall — if you watched that game — that on third and long, Ohio State’s Curtis Samuel received a short pass from quarterback J.T. Barrett. The onrushing Michigan defense forced him to zigzag all over the field. At one point, Samuel was roughly 15 to 17 yards away from the line to gain, several yards behind the original line of scrimmage. On a day when Ohio State’s kicking game struggled, Samuel had to have known that if he had been tackled for an eight-yard loss, the Buckeyes would have needed a 49-yard field goal (or thereabouts) just to prolong overtime and get another chance to beat Michigan.

The Buckeyes lived on the precipice of disaster in that moment, but Samuel somehow eluded several Michigan defenders to get the ball inside the 16 and make fourth down manageable enough that Barrett could get it by the hair of his chinny-chin-chin. Once OSU did convert the fourth down — whether or not anyone thinks the call was right is another matter, to be debated until the end of time — the Buckeyes had surmounted their tallest hurdle on the road to the playoff.

The point of bringing up that play is that it epitomizes the phrase above: If at third you don’t succeed, try and try again.

A third-down play didn’t directly gain a first down, but it set up the subsequent fourth down in which the offense was able to succeed. If the third-down play had failed, the fourth-down conversion would not have been very likely. This happens all the time in football.

The key point for West Point, at the end of a season marked by two raucous and well-deserved celebrations, is simply this: Army defeated both Navy and North Texas based on this play.

The third-and-seven shovel pass which got 6.5 yards against Navy might not have directly converted a third down late in the fourth quarter on (what is now) one of the most famous and iconic drives in Army football history. However, against Navy’s weak situational defense, the play was a success. Army had to love its odds of converting fourth and inches just moments later, and it did. Much as Ohio State cleared that fourth-down hurdle and never faced a tougher challenge the rest of the way, so it was for Army against Annapolis. The portal to an explosion of joy and catharsis — 15 years in the making — had been opened and entered.

In the Heart of Dallas Bowl against North Texas, the same thing happened repeatedly: Army didn’t necessarily gain all the yards it had to gain on every play, but on numerous third downs, Army gained two to three yards after contact (or in difficult positions) to make the fourth-down play more manageable. Right down to the very end of that game in Dallas, a battle-hardened West Point offense found the right answer on fourth down, and it made all the difference in a soaring overtime triumph.

The seasons of coming close, of being an “almost” kind of team, were pushed into the rearview mirror. Army found the backbone — and the leverage, and the right side of the very thin dividing line between success and mediocrity — which had been so elusive over the previous five seasons.

There’s so much more to this Army team than one category, one component of performance and response on gameday. Yet, those other components are other separate stories being told, or waiting to be shared, by others.

For this space, this moment, this particular season-in-review reflection, celebrate not only Army’s second effort, but its “third and fourth” effort as well.

The stat book will say that Army converted only 5 of 15 third downs in the Heart of Dallas Bowl. Yet, the Black Knights’ fourth-down prowess makes that stat a lie. A 10-of-15 conversion rate paints the truer and more accurate picture of Army’s resilience… and a bowl victory which completes this program’s most successful season since 1996.

The mantra for 2017 in West Point?

If at third you don’t succeed, let’s do it all over again next year!

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