WEST POINT, N.Y. (AP) — Coach Jeff Monken was barely audible after Army lost for the fourth straight time when reiterating what he preaches every week — the margin for error is razor thin for his Black Knights.
Army hasn't lost this many in a row since the end of the 2015 season, when the Black Knights finished 2-10 in Monken's second year at West Point.
"When you have a stretch like this, nobody feels good," Monken said. "We're coming up short far too often. You're not going to have a smile on your face. There's going to be some anguish. We want to win."
Monken's voice was back Tuesday as Army (3-5) began preparing to face Air Force (6-2) on the road Saturday. Army has won the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy the last two years in the fierce round-robin competition for supremacy among the three service academies. Air Force already has lost to Navy and dropped two straight to the Black Knights.
Saturday's 34-29 loss to San Jose State offered a microcosm of what's gone wrong during Army's losing streak — simply too many mistakes and too many injuries. There nine penalties for 74 yards, including one for unsportsmanlike conduct after a long kickoff return that set up a field goal with 2 seconds left in the opening half; a bad snap that prevented an extra point attempt; a lost fumble on a first-down play, the lone turnover of the game, which the Spartans converted into a touchdown; and failure on a fourth-and-6 play in San Jose State territory that set up a field goal.
All of that helped negate what was a solid day on offense for Army's triple option despite being forced to use three quarterbacks because of injuries. Army rushed for 326 yards on 70 carries, a 4.7-yard average, netted 103 yards passing for one touchdown and zero interceptions, and held the ball for more than 39 minutes.
That performance normally would spell victory for the Black Knights.
Not this season. Not at Michie Stadium, where they had reeled off 15 consecutive wins before this losing streak began with a loss at home to Tulane in early October. Not even against a team that Army routed 52-3 last year on the road.
"By the way the game came out, we took a step backwards," Monken said. "I wish I had the answers, but I don't right now. We've got to do better. I've got to do better. This is an awfully big game (Saturday). It's a season within a season. We're going to have to make some fast improvements here to get ready to go west."
Army was operating with third-stringers on Saturday at middle linebacker and right tackle and at quarterback after senior starter Kelvin Hopkins Jr. and sophomore Jabari Laws were hurt. Standout safety Jaylon McClinton watched the loss in street clothes.
Monken said he was hopeful that some players would be able to return this weekend. Because of the injuries, Army has had to resort to using players who didn't practice during the week and then suited up for game day.
"It's balancing the work that we need on the field in practice with the health of our team and trying to get enough preparation," Monken said. "We've got to have a great week of practice.
"It's hard to see those players who have invested so much and put all the work in and not be able to celebrate success, be able to win," he said. "We're trying to help these guys have a great experience, help them win. I want to see them celebrate."