WEST POINT — The ambulance straddled the 33- and 34-yard lines, ready to transport Morgan State running back Demerius Goodwin from the battlefield to the hospital. He’d been lifted onto a stretcher following a head-pounding hit from Army safety Cam Jones, who fell unconscious to the turf as soon as he made contact. Jones would be escorted to the locker room and the game would resume as soon as the back wheels of the ambulance drove off the last bit of grass.

This was, unquestionably, the nadir of an afternoon marred by injuries on both sides and Army’s least-encouraging performance of the 2019 campaign. For the second consecutive week, the Black Knights’ comfortable margin of victory belied their early struggles, the 52-21 final shielding the same mistakes that have plagued the program all season.

It’s one thing to drag your feet against Rice and University of Texas at San Antonio. It’s quite another to trail 14-7 to a Morgan State team that had mustered 15 total points against Bowling Green and James Madison in the season’s first two weeks. The first quarter wasn’t simply a slow start, it was a sluggish crawl. Head coach Jeff Monken called it “an embarrassment,” with hard emphasis on that second syllable.

Akyah Miranda fumbled a punt return, quarterback Jabari Laws lost another fumble, defensive backs blew pass coverages and the defensive line failed to get consistent pressure, leading to the trading of touchdowns in the first half. The game was so perplexingly even at one point that it begged the question if Morgan was actually a U.S. state.

Monken wasn’t in the hats-off-to-the-opponent mood postgame, referring to Army’s 483 yards of total offense as chump change, considering who his offense was up against. (“No offense,” he added, to Morgan State.)

Morgan State came into West Point knowing it needed to take some deep shots. DeAndre Harris dropped one such skyward arc into the hands of Manasseh Bailey, who trotted 69 yards for a tying score.

Jabari Laws, who again started over Kelvin Hopkins, lost a fumble on the next possession, and the following snap, Morgan State’s Jabriel Johnson darted into end zone from 25 yards out.

Despite another lackluster start, Army would pour on the points as expected. The full rotation of fullbacks received playing time, which was something to be happy about, a smiley-face sticker on a failed exam. Five of them — Sandon McCoy, Connor Slomka, Rashaad Bolton, Cade Barnard and highly-touted freshman Anthony Adkins — ran for touchdowns. Slomka surpassed 100 yards rushing for the first time in his career, though he wasn't terribly excited about it: “Obviously we’re not satisfied with the outcome,” Slomka said.

On one second-quarter play, third-string quarterback Christian Anderson lofted a pass to slotback Artice Hobbs, who was so open he could’ve told his life story before making the catch, and he sprinted up the seam for an 80-yard score. It was his second end-zone trip of the day, after enduring a scoreless first three games.

Anderson was pushed into action once Laws left the game after suffering a helmet-to-helmet hit that resulted in an ejection for targeting. “I had a feeling I was going to play this game,” Anderson said, although he likely meant under different circumstances. Kelvin Hopkins entered for one play when Anderson’s helmet popped off. Monken said Hopkins, the unquestioned starter, could have played, but why risk it against a team Army thought it was much better than going into Saturday?

Though the Black Knights’ defense allowed the Bears to bite off big gains throughout the contest, Army did manage its first interception of the season. In fact, Jones, Elijah Riley and Ryan Velez — replacing Jones once he exited the game — all had picks. It was the first time in almost three years that Army finished a game with a trio of interceptions.

Again, that achievement was overlooked by an overall lackadaisical showing. “Going forward,” Riley said, “it’s just not going to cut it.”

After Michigan, Army’s Week 2 challenger, was nearly blanked by Wisconsin on Saturday, it’s fair to wonder if the Black Knights are as strong a unit as they’ve been heralded to be in 2019. Monken may have resurrected this program, but there’s no denying that the team is, at the very least, plateauing through his sixth season.

When Anderson, Barnard, Slomka and Riley walked out for their postgame press conference, they looked like they’d just witnessed an unspeakable tragedy. In truth, they had won by 31 points. On any other day, against any other team, that would be cause for celebration.

“That sounds good in the paper, maybe,” Monken said. “Doesn’t sound any good to me.”

The real tragedy, of course, was that one athlete hit another athlete so hard that one lost consciousness and the other couldn't walk off the field. The moment sucked the air out the stadium, the camo-clad cadets suddenly silent, blending in with the serene backdrop. That collision was unsettling to the fans, players and coaches in Michie Stadium, as was the team's performance, to a much lesser degree.

Following a bye, Tulane will enter Michie Stadium riding high after handing Houston a loss in the most exhilarating finish in college football this season.

Four weeks in, Army is still somewhat of an enigma, as capable of sleepwalking through a half against its weakest opponent at home as it is of almost capturing a win over a top-10 team on the road.

Every game thus far has been a spectacle, for better or worse. If this trajectory continues, there will be many more in the future. But next week, a much-needed bye. For everyone.


Twitter: @jfedichTHR