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C.I.C. Champs: Strong defense, late score leads Army to win over Air Force

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Army has claimed the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy for the third time in four years.

NCAA Football: Air Force at Army Danny Wild-USA TODAY Sports

All season long, Army has leaned on its much-improved defense. Saturday’s game against Air Force at Michie Stadium would be no different.

After a late touchdown from Jakobi Buchanan, the Black Knights’ defense stepped up to seal the win. With a minute and 13 seconds remaining, Air Force quarterback Haaziq Daniels stepped back to throw, hoping to create some magic. Instead, his pass was tipped by Army’s Kwabena Bonsu and the ball flailed into the arms of Arik Smith. Army’s offense took the field, snapped the ball twice in the victory formation and that was that.

For the third time in four seasons, Jeff Monken’s Black Knights have claimed the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy. Army’s 10-7 win over rival Air Force on Saturday capped off a 9-2 regular season for the Black Knights. That the season happened at all is somewhat of a miracle, considering Army had to rebuild nearly its entire schedule in August amid the pandemic.

Army has now claimed the C.I.C. nine times.

The win for Army marked the sixth time this season they had held an opponent to 10 points or less. The defense — engineered by first-year defensive coordinator Nate Woody — has been a point of pride for the Black Knights all year.

Army held Air Force scoreless for almost three quarters. After throwing an interception and missing a pair of field goals, the Falcons finally pieced together a scoring drive as the third period was coming to a close.

Starting at their own 13-yard-line, the Falcons marched 87 yards in 10 plays and made most of its big gains through the air. Daniels completed three passes earlier in the drive, then — as he was scrambling — connected with Kyle Patterson down the sideline for a 39-yard pick-up. On third-and-goal from 10 yards out, Daniels then threaded the needle to find Patterson in the end-zone for the game’s first touchdown.

Army’s offense had sputtered and struggled to that point too. The Black Knights fumbled away their first possession, settled for a 24-yard Quinn Maretzki field goal on their second, turned the ball over on downs on their third, and then punted three straight times.

But with the game on the line with a little more than eight minutes to play, Army went to work with its ground game. Tyrell Robinson, Christian Anderson and Buchanan each broke off big gains on the drive that lasted 16 plays and ate up 7:11 of clock. It was capped off by a fourth down run by Buchanan, who bulldozed his way over Air Force’s defense for a goal-line score.

Buchanan finished the day as Army’s leading rusher, covering 86 yards on 21 totes. Anderson — who relieved Tyhier Tyler under-center after the sophomore took a helmet-to-helmet hit — rushed for 85 yards on 18 touches. In all Army rushed for 290 yards on 71 carries, a 4.1 yards per-carry clip. The Black Knights also owned nearly 38 minutes of possession.

Defensively, the usual suspects shined for Army. Jon Rhattigan had seven tackles, Cameron Jones, Jabari Moore and Smith came up with the interceptions, and Cedric Cunningham had five tackles and a pass break-up.

Air Force’s season is over. The Falcons finished the season 3-3, split with Navy and Army and went 1-2 in Mountain West play.

This year was, without question, a successful one for Army. The Black Knights beat their rivals, played exceptionally well on defense and had one of the top rushing attacks in the nation while playing a bit of musical chairs at quarterback.

But 2020 has a chance to get a little bit better for the Black Knights. On Dec. 26, they’ll play in the Independence Bowl, likely against a Pac-12 team. A victory there would give Army its third double-digit win season in Monken’s tenure.