WEST POINT, N.Y. -- The aftermath of Jeff Monken's first game as head coach at Army couldn't have sounded any sweeter.
After the final gun, Monken sang with the West Point Corps of Cadets sitting in the stands at sweltering Michie Stadium and yelled "Beat Navy!" -- a fitting end to a hard-fought 47-39 victory over Buffalo on Saturday.
"There's 4,000 students over there standing out in the sun that are living and dying on every play with our team," said Monken, now 5-0 as a head coach in season-openers. "Part of the celebration is for them. We need all 4,000 of them to have our backs every time they're there, to be the 12th man for us."
Larry Dixon ran for a career-high 174 yards and two touchdowns, one of six Army players to score as the Black Knights gained 341 yards rushing and snapped a five-game losing streak.
"It's certainly uplifting to have a coach that's so supporting of us and everything we do," senior defensive tackle Joe Drummond said after just his ninth win at West Point. "The entire staff is more excited than we are at this point. We've got this win, we've got a lot of things to work on, but to come off the field and getting a win is exactly what we were looking for."
Undaunted, Joe Licata led the Bulls (1-1) on a furious 22-point rally that made it a one-possession game. Buffalo recovered an onside kick and a fumbled pitch, and Licata took advantage, throwing three TD passes, two to Devin Campbell and one to Marcus McGill.
Campbell's 8-yard catch with 2:42 left was the final score. The Bulls had one more chance, but Licata threw two incompletions and they fell a yard short of a first down.
"You dig yourself in a hole against a team that chops the clock and runs the ball well, as a team we weren't able to pull off the win," Buffalo coach Jeff Quinn said. "We just turned the ball over too many times in some key situations, and that's what hurt us."
The Black Knights finished 3-9 last season under Rich Ellerson, who was fired after his fifth straight loss to Navy. Monken, who served as an assistant coach to Paul Johnson at Navy and Georgia Tech, was hired as head coach last December after a four-year stint as head coach at FCS power Georgia Southern.
Monken's job is to resurrect a program that has struggled for nearly two decades. Since Army went 10-2 and was ranked 25th in 1996, the Black Knights have posted a 51-149 record.
Some timely runs against a stacked Buffalo line, a conservative-but-flawless passing game that surprised the Bulls more than once, and a defense that stiffened when it had to and forced a critical turnover helped stake Army to an 18-point halftime lead.
The Army defense intercepted three passes, two by Josh Jenkins, the offense converted into touchdowns. That more than offset 12 penalties for 105 yards, though the mistakes certainly furrowed Monken's brow.
"For our guys to get their backs pushed to the wall like that and still find a way to win is something we can build on," Monken said. "We've got to improve tremendously. We made enough mistakes. The unforced errors, 12 penalties, eight in the first half, the turnovers, we've got to do a better job. We just looked like an undisciplined team."
Licata was 34 of 49 for 396 yards and five touchdowns, while McGill had six catches for 123 yards and two touchdowns.
The Monken era got off to a shaky start when Santiago fumbled on the game's second play from scrimmage. Witney Sherry recovered for the Bulls at the Army 48, but they had to settle for Patrick Clarke's 22-yard field goal when the Army defense stiffened inside the 10.
Army got on track on its next possession, driving 75 yards for a touchdown despite penalties on consecutive plays.
The Black Knights rely on the triple option for most of their offense, but the occasional pass can work wonders and it did against the Bulls the first time Army decided to throw. Santiago, who finished 6 of 6 for 96 yards, hit Raymond Maples for a 30-yard gain on a throwback pass on third-and-13.
Santiago then gained three yards on a fourth-and-1 play and Dixon scampered up the middle on a 23-yard touchdown run for a 7-3 lead with 4:20 left in the first quarter.
A personal foul against Army's Geoffery Bacon placed the Black Knights in more jeopardy late in the first, giving the Bulls a first down at the Army 25. But the Black Knights held again and Clarke's 35-yard field goal attempt was wide right.
Maples, who received a medical redshirt to play his final year after sitting most of 2013 with a rare tendon avulsion in his right leg, is seeking to become just the second running back in school history to amass three 1,000-yard seasons. On this day, he his mark as a receiver, catching two passes for a career-high 69 yards.
A 39-yard gain set up Tony Giovannelli's 4-yard touchdown run and gave Army a 14-3 lead early in the second. The Black Knights seemed content to take that lead into halftime before cornerback Chris Carnegie intercepted Licata at the 37 and returned it to the Buffalo 8 with 34 seconds left.
Maples scored on a 4-yard pitch right for a 21-3 halftime lead.
In the end, that was enough.
"We had our backs up against the wall and made it happen," Drummond said.
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