WEST POINT – On his first play as the starting Army quarterback, Angel Santiago, his back teetering on his own goal line, hit Xavier Moss with a 24-yard completion. He was just getting started. On the eighth play of that opening drive, Santiago faked a pitch and ran 33 yards for a touchdown. He was just getting started.
By the time Santiago had finished, he had run for 120 yards and three touchdowns and passed for 101 yards and one touchdown to lead the Black Knights to an opening-night 28-12 victory over Morgan State at Michie Stadium. Not bad for anyone in their directorial debut, particularly for someone who had only learned of his first-team status a week ago.
“I think for the first game, I thought I performed well,” he said. “There are a lot of things I need to improve on.”
Needless to say. But when he and A.J. Schurr began competing for the top spot, Santiago’s strength was seen to be his legs; Schurr, in contrast, his arm. So what was he doing dropping back to pass on the first play from scrimmage?
“That’s never been our impression of Angel,” Army head coach Rich Ellerson said. “Angel has been a very productive thrower throughout his time here. And I said we validated some of the things we were doing, and we validated some people, and Angel can deliver the ball. There’s not a lot of difference between him and A.J. as throwers, either.”
Army showed a little bit of everything on its opening drive. Following the completion to Moss, Larry Dixon had back-to-back rushes for 23 yards; next came an 8-yard Santiago completion to Chevaughn Lawrence, followed by a 3-yard run by Raymond Maples. After an incompletion, Santiago scratched out four yards to give the Black Knights a fourth and 3 at the Morgan State 33. Too close to punt; too far away for a field-goal attempt. So Santiago rolled left and didn’t have a hand laid on him until his teammates mobbed him in the end zone.
“When we connected on that [first] pass, it boosted the entire offense’s energy,” Santiago said. “I think it showed on that drive. We were able to drive down and score.”
The Black Knights were similarly effective the next two times they had the ball, and on each possession were both furious and fast. It took just 3 minutes, 11 seconds and seven plays for Army to move the ball 88 yards, the last three plays of the drive being runs of 38 and 14 yards by Santiago, with the finale a 1-yard run for his second touchdown.
On its subsequent possession Morgan State, forced to punt, instead saw the snap fumbled by its punter, Lawrence Forbes; Patrick Laird recovered the ball for Army at the Bears’ 23 yard line. This time it took just two plays for Army to get in. A 5-yard run by Maples was followed by Santiago’s 18-yard TD pass to Lawrence. Lawrence’s first career touchdown reception; Santiago’s first career touchdown pass. And a 21-0 lead. The Black Knights’ offensive efficiency was such that their three first-half touchdowns accounted for only 7:05 of playing time.
“Angel did some great stuff,” Ellerson said. “The best thing about Angel’s performance was, the ball’s not on the ground. We took some chances for the ball to be on the ground, he took some shots, and the ball goes through his hands on every snap. That kind of play at quarterback will give you a great chance. There will be all kinds of things he’ll do better. He’s got quick feet and he can make some people miss, and he made some nice throws. Now there are some throws he’d like back, especially on third and short. That’s a great first outing for him to win the opener. He can feel great about a lot of the things he did out there, and it’s a chance to get better on some of things the next time up.”
Morgan State, which held the ball for almost 21 first-half minutes, finally scored on an 18-play, 82-yard drive, culminating with quarterback Robert Council’s 1-yard run. The Bears rotate three quarterbacks, primarily Council and Seth Higgins. Strangely, Higgins started the game, but was replaced by Council during the team’s second possession. Third-stringer Ricky Fisk saw some time in the fourth quarter.
“When Seth is in, we do the things that Seth can do, and when Robert’s in, we do the things that Robert can do,” Morgan State coach Donald Hill-Eley said. “It gives us an advantage, the defenses have to get ready for both guys and I don’t think it kills the rhythm at all.”
Actually, the near-flawless rhythm Army had displayed on offense most of the first half began to wane just as the half was closing. It didn’t seem that would be the case when Santiago hit Moss with a 51-yard completion, putting the ball at the Morgan State 24. Seven plays later, Santiago was thrown for a 4-yard loss with Army having a fourth and goal at the 2.
Army got on the scoreboard for the fourth and final time on its first second-half possession, Dixon running three times for 50 yards, then Santiago two for 15, the last three for his third rushing touchdown. Another fast drive – five plays, 65 yards, 2 minutes, 14 seconds. Then…nothing. On its next two possessions, three and out. The next time the Black Knights had the ball, Dixon rushed for 14 yards on the first play; then, three plays and a punt.
“I think we came out a little complacent,” Santiago said. “That’s something we cannot do. We have to come out just like the scoreboard is 0-0. That’s one thing we definitely need to change.”
’We can be a more consistent offensive football team in the second half,” Ellerson said. “We can be a better defensive team up front. We got pushed around a little bit, but to the guys’ credit we battled back. There are some great instances in there when you can teach: when we’re on our end of the field and we go three and out. That’s one of those things where 80-plus percent of the time, the team will score on the next possession. We get a great punt, then we get a three and out. You have some things that you do as a football team where you work together. When we were struggling a little bit on defense, the offense stepped up. When the offense started to struggle, the defense got some stops. Both sides complemented one another.”
Morgan State scored its final touchdown the first time it had the ball in the third quarter, an 81-yard drive ending with a 22-yard TD pass from Council to Chris Flowers.
“We came out slow and didn’t play our game,” Morgan State running back Lamont Brown III said. “We were playing to their speed and we let them control us. They got out early, and we came out in the second half and tried to fight. We stopped them, but we couldn’t put points on the board as an offense. “
Army ended the game with 295 yards rushing, well below the nation-leading totals the Black Knights posted the last two seasons. Santiago led with 120; Dixon had 107. Of the five running backs who rushed the ball, four are juniors; one, Maples, a senior.
“That was part of Angel’s formula for success. He had some veteran players around him with the football that have all been there before,” Ellerson said. “As I said, we still need to play an awful lot better in the second half. We did what we like we think we can do at the end. We take the ball and we just hold on to it and we’re productive. We needed that kind of play a little bit earlier. It’s a veteran backfield and that’s going to give Angel a chance to work out the kinks of his game.”
As will likely be the case for at least awhile, Santiago knowingly remains if not in the shadow of his record-setting predecessor, than at least within earshot.
“Trent Steelman did amazing things here so there are definitely big shoes to fill,” he said. “I just want to go out there and do my best each play in order to put my team in the best situation to win. There is no one guy on this team. All eleven of us on the field are a team. When we’re all in sync and in tune, we’re definitely a force.”