Army had a chance to win again and let it slip away. Again.
There was Kelvin Hopkins, taking his first snap of the game on the Air Force 7-yard line, with four shots to be the hero. The starting quarterback, who was too injured to start but not too hurt to be thrust into the game during its most meaningful moment, had watched backup Jabari Laws work his team down to the doorstep of what would have been Army’s most significant victory of the 2019 season by far.
Three of Hopkins’ passes fell incomplete, including the final one, as he couldn’t locate a wide-open Kell Walker to his right. The Air Force Falcons (7-2) took over, the final 38 seconds drained off the clock, and in a 17-13 defeat, the resilient effort of the Army Black Knights (3-6) wasn’t enough.
The painful part of this for Army is not that it lost to a military academy rival. It’s that Army played better than it arguably had all season, and all it has to show for it is a fifth straight loss and a long flight back home from Colorado.
The Black Knights ended the game the way they started: a promising possession ending in a turnover on downs on fourth-and-goal. The first one was controversial. On a quarterback sneak from the 1-yard line, Laws tried to drive his feet forward with a nudge from behind from fullback Connor Slomka. He may have crossed the goal line, but the mass of bodies surrounding him made it impossible to reverse the call on the field. The 5-foot-9 quarterback was ruled short.
Air Force struck first with a 20-yard field goal, but Laws answered with a 2-yard rushing touchdown on the next drive. Freshman kicker Cole Talley shanked the extra point right. That miss would be significant.
After four punts to open the second half, two from each team, Air Force’s Timothy Jackson broke free for a 40-yard gain. He evaded diving safety Jaylon McClinton, ran over cornerback Javhari Bourdeau and bulldozed through cornerback Elijah Riley. Eight plays later, he scooted untouched for a 3-yard score to push Air Force ahead 10-6.
The very next play was Army’s longest from scrimmage this season. Laws found Camden Harrison so open in the middle of the field they could have constructed an Olympic-size swimming pool around him and the defenders would still be standing at the water’s edge. Harrison darted for 87 yards on the touchdown, accounting for a large chunk of Laws’ 214 passing yards. (This game was a statistical anomaly for Army, which, by comparison, only ran for 129 yards.)
Air Force tallied 328 ground yards and didn’t miss a beat after the blown coverage on Harrison. Joshua Stoner churned ahead for a 5-yard touchdown on the ensuing possession, equipping Air Force with a four-point advantage.
“They were killing us on the counter play,” said Army head coach Jeff Monken. “They got us a couple times on a zone give with an extra blocker over there, a tight end or a flexed tight end. And we just, we weren’t getting them stopped.”
Army punted two times before receiving the ball at its own 20-yard line with 2:53 to play. Laws continued to connect with receivers. He hit Artice Hobbs on a key third-and-8 from Army’s 22; he planted one in the arms of Harrison, who rumbled to midfield on an 11-yard gain.
And then, with the game clock hovering near the one-minute mark, Laws hit Brandon Walters for a 31-yard gain down to the Air Force 13-yard line. But it came at a price. Laws had taken a shot to the head from defensive tackle Jordan Jackson, a man roughly 100 pounds heavier and eight inches taller than he. Upon review, Jackson was ejected for targeting. The ball was moved to the 7-yard line. Laws exited the game for good.
The first pass sailed way over the head of Harrison. The second was a 2-yard quarterback run. The third a failed attempt to squeeze one in to Harrison, who was blanketed by Zane Lewis. There was some contact from Lewis, but not enough to draw a flag. And then, finally, dreadfully, a fourth-and-goal in which the pressure that engulfed a re-tooled offensive line forced Hopkins to miss Walker in the flat, who hadn’t touched the ball the entire day. He threw to Hobbs. Hobbs wasn’t open.
“I thought the guys made a heck of an effort to get it down there,” Monken said. “Jabari made some really good plays to give us an opportunity to put it in and we didn’t get it done.”
Air Force, which nearly lost the ball trying to kneel as a submarining Rod Stoddard jarred the ball loose, jogged off the field with another resounding victory. Army limped off again, burdened with another crushing defeat.
© 2019 The Times Herald-Record
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