"Coming Close" is never considered good enough at West Point, but Saturday's 41-40 loss to Northern Illinois was a remarkable performance by the Army offense.
Ray Maples, Larry Dixon, and Trent Steelman all ran for more than 100 yards, as the Black Knights rushed for 486 yards and six touchdowns.
This was a remarkable contest. It had six lead changes, three in the fourth quarter, as the offenses of both teams moved the ball almost at will.
NIU had 515 total yards, led by quarterback Jordan Lynch, who threw for 342 yards, completing 18-27 passes, four for touchdowns. Army's dominant ground game enabled it to hold a 43:33-to16:27 edge in time of possession.
The difference was big plays by NIU.
At the end of the first quarter, on the fourth play after an effective Army punt by Chris Boldt put the Huskies back on their 2-yard line, Lynch ran around the Army right side, broke tackles at midfield and sprinted 88 yards for a touchdown that gave NIU a 14-7 lead.
In the second quarter, NIU wide receiver Tommylee Lewis ran untouched 21 yards to give the Huskies a 21-7 lead. After Army put together a 10-play scoring drive to cut the lead to 21-13, Army freshman kicker Daniel Grochowski missed the PAT, an error that would come back to haunt the Black Knights.
On the second play of the next drive, Lynch threw another touchdown pass to Lewis. This one covered 69 yards and put NIU ahead 28-13.
But the Black Knights kept coming back, with Maples, Dixon and sophomore Stephen Frazier, who was filling in for Terry Baggett, crunching yardage on the ground play after play. Quarterback Trent Steelman even completed a pass to junior Scott Williams on the drive.
Army scored on a Larry Dixon run up the middle, but it failed on its two-point conversion attempt, leaving NUI ahead 28-19 at the half.
In the third quarter, after the defense forced a punt, Army went 68 yards, scoring on a 25-yard run by Steelman to cut the NIU lead to 28-26. On the next NIU drive, Army linebacker Nate Combs prevented a touchdown by falling on a Huskie fumble in the Army end zone.
The Back Knights took advantage of the turnover, putting together an 80-yard drive, with Dixon, Maples and Steelman sharing the carries. Dixon gave Army the lead on a 4-yard run. And Steelman completed a two-point conversion pass to Patrick Laird to give the Black Knights a 34-28 lead.
In the fourth quarter, a NIU punt return by Perez Ashford gave the Huskies possession at midfield, and Lynch threw a 31-yard TD pass to Martel Moore as NIU regained the lead 35-34.
On the next series, Combs recovers another Huskie fumble at the NIU 17-yard line. Steelman scored on the first play, running for his second TD, as Army retook the lead 40-35 with 8:48 remaining.
Northern Illinois proceeded to march back down the field, with a 28-yard completion from Lynch to Moore the key play. It converted a 3rd-and-12 play situation and advanced the ball to the Army 19. Another Lynch-to-Moore completion for eight yards gave NUI the lead 41-40.
The NIU two-point attempt failed, and trailing by one with 4:29 remaining, Army took possession at its 25-yard line.
A 10-yard run by Steelman brought the ball to the NIU 48. A procedure penalty cost five yards, but Maples ran for nine yards on second down. On 3rd-and-6, Steelman ran for two yards. On 4th down, the quarterback again looked for daylight, found none, changed direction and was tackled in the backfield, a play similar to the last Army play against Navy last December.
And that was the game.
In the postgame press conference, Steelman looked disappointed, despite rushing for 166 yards on 27 carries against a large NUI front seven.
As a four-year starter, Steelman wants the program to be successful so the Corps of Cadets can enjoy the victories for which, they are taught, there is no substitute at West Point.
I asked him afterward how they improved so dramatically from the 42-7 loss to San Diego State in last week's opener.
"There's no comparison, but at the same time we win as a team and we lose as a team, and we lost as a team today. I feel the same as I did last week. A loss is a loss.''
Afterward, Army coach Rich Ellerson looked exhausted but proud of the team's effort in the loss. He was especially impressed with the offense, which scored five second-half touchdowns.
"What a difference a week makes in terms of our competitiveness. Offensively, that is what it looks like when we're operating and feeling good about what we are doing. The defense scrambled, but they found a way to make some stops."
On the other side, in the happy visitors' locker room, Northern Illinois coach Dave Doeren was relieved to escape the trip to West Point with the narrowest of victories.
"Obviously, my hat goes off to Army. Their kids played hard. It was a heck of a football game. Our guys overcame a lot in that game to win."
Sophomore Ryan Powis was back at center against NUI, and the line of LT Ben Jebb, LG Frank Allen, RG Stephen Shumaker and RT Michael Kime performed well opening up holes against a large NIU defensive line anchored by 308-pound tackle Ken Bishop and 287-pound Nabel Jefferson.
Maples had his second straight 100-yard game, rushing for 159 yards on 23 carries and scoring Army's first touchdown on its opening 75-yard drive. The gifted runner's averaged 6.9 yards per carry.
"I felt really good today,'' Maples, a junior, told me. "The line opened up some big holes, which gave me the opportunity to gain a couple of yards.''
But the breakout performance of the day came from Dixon, the sophomore fullback who had 136 rushing and three touchdowns on 28 attempts.
Playing on the artificial turf on such a warm day, NIU's Doeren said Army's blocking scheme and formations caused his defenders increasing problems as the game wore on.
"They started running a double-team scheme where they were loading two backs outside of the quarterback, kind of a student body option. We went into the game thinking that we could take the quarterback away with a certain call, and they eliminated it with the blocking scheme, so we had to adjust throughout the game."
The Black Knights now prepare for a trip to Winston-Salem, N.C., to play Wake Forest at 12:30 p.m. next Saturday. The Demon Deacons are coming a 52-0 loss to Florida State after opening with wins over Liberty and North Carolina.
Do you think Army can find ways to bring its defense up to the level of the offense and pull out a road win at Wake?
Ken Kraetzer covers Army football for WVOX in New Rochelle, N.Y., and Sons of the American Legion Press. Listen to his high school/college sports reports at 6:35 a.m. every Monday and Friday on 1460 AM, available nationally on www.wvox.com.