When Bob Sutton, coming off his most successful season at West Point, selected untested junior quarterback Johnny Goff over senior Adam Thompson to direct the Cadets' offense this year, an area columnist compared the Army coach to a riverboat gambler.
"This gamble won't affect a game. This gamble will affect a season," predicted Kevin Gleason of the Middletown (N.Y.) Times Herald.
Gleason, it seems, was right on the money. Sutton bet on Goff, whose varsity experience was limited to three carries in 1996, and watched his team experience a reversal of fortune.
After finishing 10-2 last year, the Cadets are 4-6 going into tomorrow's showdown with Navy. They lost to both Marshall and Miami of Ohio, and were blanked by Tulane, 41-0, and Air Force, 24-0.
Goff did not throw his first touchdown pass until Army's most recent loss to Boston College, 24-20. In 10 games, he has rushed for a team-high 667 yards, but has completed only 26 of 84 passes or 31.7 percent, inviting rival defenses to use eight-man fronts and all but dare Goff to throw the ball.
Of course, if the Texas native has a spectacular day in the Meadowlands and the Cadets post a sixth straight victory over Navy, his past problems will be forgotten.
But Sutton has spent most of this difficult year explaining his choice and propping up his beleaguered quarterback.
When it was suggested the season might have been different if he had opted for Thompson, Sutton said: "That just sounds like a good story to me. I've probably thought about everything that has happened this season at one time or another. But I haven't spent a lot of time wondering if that was the decision that affected our team.
"I know there are a lot of other factors besides quarterback that had a bearing on our record," the coach added. "We lost 17 starters to graduation, and we've got almost an entirely new offensive line. That's why I've never gone back and said, 'You know, it was obvious we made a poor decision.' "
The quarterback controversy began in the spring. Thompson, who had come on in relief of injured Ronnie McAda last season to produce victories over North Texas, Yale and Rutgers, chose to pass up football practice to play baseball, as he has done each spring.
When Goff sprinted 65 yards for a touchdown on the second play of Army's first spring scrimmage, offensive coordinator Greg Gregory, in his 16th season as an assistant coach, jumped on Goff's bandwagon.
Said Gregory, "In my opinion, and coach Sutton's opinion, there is no way not to start Goff. He has performed well every time out. He's got every offensive tool you want. He can run. He can throw. He can execute the option. All he needs is game experience. But we expect him to have a great year."
The record shows it has been anything but that for Goff. To Thompson's credit, he has not made any waves to create a team schism. But it is obvious he believes he did not get a fair shake from the coaches when preseason drills began.
"It wasn't something that I let slip away," said the Florida native. "I don't know if you can let something slip away you've never had. I wonder when the decision was made. I don't know if it was made in the spring or fall. Coach Sutton just said he had a gut feeling [picking Goff].
"I felt if I had a good camp, I would win the job," Thompson said. "It isn't one of those things where I can look back and say, I wish I could have done things differently.
"I think I'm as good as I've ever been, and probably as good as I'm going to get. But Johnny got all the reps in spring practice, and that had to benefit him. He became a better quarterback and, at the same time, in the minds of our coaches, I wasn't."
Sutton says his choice of Goff had nothing to do with Thompson missing spring drills.
"If that was all I was basing it on, it would have been an easy decision," the coach said. "The only factor was that it gave Johnny an opportunity to play the position."
Sutton and Gregory were convinced that Goff brought more to the table.
Still, there were times during the season when Sutton was tempted to make a change. In fact, in October, he yanked a struggling Goff in the second half of the 41-0 rout by Tulane -- Army's worst loss in 15 years.
After watching the tapes, Sutton said, "I don't think quarterback was our only problem. I wish it was; I wish it was that easy."
That is why Sutton will sink or swim with Goff against Navy, a game that can salvage an otherwise disappointing season.
Said Goff, "I try not to feel any pressure, but, of course, it's there. I just have to go out there and play my game, do my very best, and hope that's enough to get the job done."
Pub Date: 12/05/97