By John Chuhran
SAL Squadron 135, White Plains, NY
Fort Worth, TX -- The Army Football Team played brilliantly throughout the 2018 season, but the Black Knights saved the best for last.
In Saturday's Lockheed-Martin Armed Forces Bowl, the team from West Point put on a dominating display on both sides of the ball en route to a 70-14 win over the University of Houston (8-5) at Amon G. Carter Stadium. In some ways it was an unusual win; Army (11-3) utilized its time-consuming, pounding running attack to score just one of its 10 touchdowns, capitalizing on big plays to amass a season-high 592 yards and score the other nine. But the stingy Army defense played exactly as expected and limited a team that had averaged 528 yards per game to just 317 yards. Army logged 10 quarterback sacks on the day -- a team and Armed Forces Bowl record.
The win over the Cougars completed a remarkable season for Army which registered some impressive accomplishments -- first Army team to ever win 11 games in a season, first Army team to win back-to-back Commander-In-Chief's trophies, first Army team to win Bowl games in three consecutive years, first team ever to win the Armed Forces Bowl three times. Add in victories in the last three Army-Navy games (after a losing streak that lasted 14 years) and it is easy to see why experts regard the 2018 team as the best Army squad since the undefeated team of 1958, and the last three years as the most successful run since the legendary West Point teams that dominated the college football rankings from 1944-50.
"This is a great team and just a great bunch of guys," said Army head coach Jeff Monken. "We never claimed to be the most talented team, but you don't have to have the best players to win -- you have to have the best team to win and this is a great team. There's guys making plays today that hadn't played a whole lot, but they were making plays today. I think this is one of the best teams I've ever been a part of. I just so excited for this team -- I'm thrilled for these seniors. To go 2-10 as freshman and to now go 11-2, be the winningest team in program history, first (Army) team to win three bowl games in a row -- it's incredible. There's just so many milestones this senior class has helped this program reach. I couldn't be more proud. This is a great day for Army football. We do this to represent all those men and women who serve around the world who wear these Army colors. This is a tremendous source of pride for us and I hope they all have a great holiday season -- especially those away from their families. Be safe and we'll see you soon. Beat Navy!"
The Black Knights entered the game leading the nation in average time of possession per game (38:50, nearly four minutes more than the next best team) and ranked second in the country with an average of 296.3 rushing yards per game. Long, grinding drives had been Army's trademark this year and the Black Knights had used them effectively to build a 10-2 record. The Army defense had allowed an average of just 17.4 points per game despite a front line that was almost always smaller than its opponents'. A physically punishing secondary and a speedy group of cornerbacks and safeties had been extremely effective at minimizing the big-play attacks of rivals all year long.
Houston offered a completely different style, ranking 129th among FBS teams in average time of possession (just 25:03) but using big plays to score at least 31 points in each of the Cougars' games and scoring 40 points or more in 10 of their first 12 games. The team from Texas had started 2018 exceptionally strong and logged a 7-1 record, but starting quarterback D'Eriq King was lost for the rest of the season in November with a torn meniscus and All-American defensive tackle Ed Oliver sustained another injury and did not play in the finale to prevent him from aggravating the problem ahead of the NFL draft.
Replacement quarterback Clayton Tune, a freshman, had played as well as could be expected for Houston, completing seven touchdown passes in the next four games, but his lack of experience led to mistakes that had contributed to the Cougars losing three of their last four games entering the contest against Army.
The Army team was at full strength against Houston and it showed. Army Quarterback Kelvin Hopkins tied the Army single-game record of five rushing touchdowns in a game and finished with 170 rushing yards (on just 11 carries, including one for 77 yards) and 70 yards passing (completing all three attempts he made) before leaving late in the third quarter with an injury that saw his left arm in a sling after the game. He was still named MVP of the game and he'll be back for his senior year in 2019.
"It was just a team effort," Hopkins said. "I couldn't have done anything without these (other) guys (on the Army team). I'm just so proud of them. We had a goal to do what we did and it's an amazing feeling to know that we achieved that. That (big run) was just me trying to make a play and not let my teammates down. They cleared the way and made it easy for me."
But as good as the offense was, the defense was even better. And no one played better than senior linebacker James Nachtigal, who had the game of his life against Houston. He logged 16 tackles and had a stunning four quarterback sacks that forced three fumbles; all were game highs that set Armed Forces Bowl records and new personal standards for the co-captain who likely played his final serious game in Texas. It was a performance that could easily have earned him the game MVP honors.
Army wasted no time setting the tone for the game. Deferring possession to the second half, the Black Knights defenders pressured Tune from the outset and Houston's first drive stalled after six plays on the Army 39. A touchback on the ensuing punt gave Army the ball on the Houston 20 and signal caller Hopkins went to work. He engineered a 14-play drive -- highlighted by rushes of 13 and 15 yards by Jordan Asberry -- that chewed off 7:47 from the clock before he scored on keeper from the Houston 1. John Abercrombie, who was a perfect 10-for-10 in PAT kicks, gave Army a 7-0 lead.
Houston took over, but again Tune struggled with the physical play of the Army defenders. In a third-and-7 situation on the Army 37, the freshman tried to escape a blitz by Nachtigal, but the Army speedster sacked him for a 10-yard loss that left the Cougars beyond field goal range.
After another touchback punt, Army took over again on its own 20. The second play from scrimmage broke the game open. Hopkins rolled left, elected to keep the ball and sprinted ahead, taking three different stutter steps and evasive weaves to avoid Houston defenders before cutting abruptly right, adding another pair of stutter steps to allow his teammates to clear a path and then racing the rest of the way to complete a 77-yard touchdown run. It was arguably Army's most impressive play of the year.
Two plays later, Army effectively sealed the win. After Landon Salyer's kickoff went through the end zone for a touchback, Houston's Tune had to scramble right to avoid the fast-closing Nachtigal. The Army defender caught him before he could throw the ball out of bounds and Nachtigal knocked the ball loose as he brought down Tune for his second sack. The pigskin bounced towards the sideline where Army's Cameron Jones picked it up and charged 23 yards into the end zone. When Abercrombie split the uprights to make it 21-0, the game was all but over just 14 seconds into the second quarter.
While Houston finally mounted a touchdown drive on the next series, Army countered with a variety of big plays from unexpected contributors -- a 54-yard pass completion from Hopkins to Kjetil Cline, a 39-yard punt return by Akyah Miranda, a 24-yard rush by Artice Hobbs IV -- to set up three more Hopkins touchdown runs that left the score 42-7 at halftime.
Afterwards, some senior players reflected on their football careers representing West Point and the U.S. Army.
"Houston was averaging more than 30 points a game," said running back Darnell Woolfolk, who ran for 71 yards on 11 carries, "so for us to score so much and keep them from scoring is just a testament to our team's will. We're the type of team that's really tough and never wants to give up. We're always playing for each other and I think that's exactly what happened today. I love my teammates; that's something I will always cherish. It's been a long journey from a 2-10 season to being 11-2. It's a testament to how much everybody cared and to the culture that has been built."
"I'm just so proud of this team -- it was just so much fun," said Army center Bryce Holland. "It's bittersweet -- my last game ever. I'm just so happy and so proud the way this team ended the season. That 70 points shows we don't quit. We take a lot of pride in carrying the flag and we're so blessed to represent the men and women that are fighting overseas and are training to go."
"Everyone did their job and when that happens you see a lot of scoring," said running back Andy Davidson, who gained 59 yards on seven rushes. "It was just a team win. The offensive line made it really easy for us running backs and (quarterback) Kelvin (Hopkins). How much work this senior class has put in starting last December is amazing. There's no complacency -- that really shows when you put 70 points up on the board. We executed really well and made less mistakes (than Houston)."