SAN ANTONIO − The actual game for the U.S. Army All-American Bowl takes place at 1 p.m. (EST) Saturday, but the competitive minds and mouths of both the East and West teams have been at it all week.
Wednesday brought the Skills Challenge, a six-round event that would challenge the ability of both teams and give one side bragging rights for the rest of the week.
"The East has been talking about a lot back at the hotel," safety Chris Metcalf said. "… we were really trying to get after them today."
It was the West that got after the East at the beginning. The kickers were the only group to mosey into the Alamo Bowl before 8 a.m. as they were set to kickoff the festivities with the field goal challenge and red zone challenge.
Keller (Texas) kicker Chris Boswell showed up in a big way. After winning the field goal challenge by nailing 10 of 12 kicks, including two 50-yarders, Boswell wrapped things up by combining with West teammate Jackson Rice in the red zone challenge. The two hit a total of three kicks inside the 20-yard line.
"Jackson and I gave them a pretty good head start with the 2-0 lead. I felt pretty good about today," Boswell said. "This really had nothing to do with this week, though. It's all about what you can do during the game that counts."
While Boswell left observers wondering if he'll produce at the same high level on Saturday, it was time for the quarterbacks to take over the events.
"We just knew that we had to win it," Georgia commitment Aaron Murray said. "Going down 3-0, we probably would've lost … . We have a great group of quarterbacks on the East side, and we're just trying to do our thing."
While doing their thing, the East quarterbacks went into the cat & mouse event and made an early statement. The goal was to choose between throwing the ball into two stationary targets. That's way too easy for these gunslingers, though, so an opposing All-American defensive back was thrown into the middle for good measure.
"It's difficult especially going against those corners," Murray said. "They are the fastest in the nation. You can't lob it in there or you can't be peeking at one target or the other or they'll jump the pass and pick it off. It was difficult, but I think we did a good job at it."
The East took their momentum into the next event, the rapid fire five-step drop. The quarterbacks were put in the goal line and forced to throw it to a receiver 30 yards down the field, surrounded by four cones in a five-yard-by-five-yard box. West quarterback A.J. McCarron hit his receiver nearly every opportunity all morning long and was definitely one of the best at his position.
"I felt like it's taken me a day or so to get used to these balls that we are using," McCarron said. "It's a different type of ball. I found a couple that I liked this morning and stuck with them. I felt like I was in a groove. That's the biggest part of this competition is finding a rhythm. If you can find a rhythm then you'll find a way to showcase your talent."
Unfortunately for McCarron, more of the East players were able to find their rhythm as they were down by one going into the gauntlet event for the wide receivers.
Lined up from one sideline to the other were six quarterbacks, three on each side and 10 yards apart. The receiver was placed directly in the middle and was forced to alternate their catches from each side and then sprint 30 yards to the end zone at the end of this timed event.
"I was just trying to focus back and forth on both quarterbacks and trying to catch every ball," Michigan commit Jeremy Gallon said. "It was just mainly practicing on your concentration. It was all about bringing the ball in and concentrating on the ball."
The East tied it up at 2-2, then fell behind by one heading into the lineman 2-man push sled. Having to push a sled for 10 yards, running around tackling dummies and then bear crawl and pick up a football in the final 10 yards, the big boys from the East showed that they knew how to finish.
"I'll knock the wind out of you," Oklahoma commitment JaMarkus McFarland said with a laugh. (Watch McFarland in action here) "Even though you want to have fun, it's also a real competitive deal at the same time."
The East won the event to tie it up, and the two sides were forced to go to an overtime obstacle course. Like all the events previous, men and women who are currently serving in the Army were mixed in among the All-Americans and competed for their respective team.
"I've been impressed with their skills," running back Christine Michael said. "Some of them were pretty fast and looked like they've played sports before. They were very athletic so it was cool."
This was some of the first real contact that the players had been able to have with those currently serving. It impacted many of the individuals in a big way.
"The army guys are wonderful," Howell said. "They're out here having a good time with us and it feels just like one big family. They work hard just like us. They're slogan says it – Army Strong. They're beasts just like everyone else out here is."
The West scraped by with a last-second victory and proved that things are going to have to wait to be settled until Saturday. Still, the event proved to be a symbol of what this weeklong bowl is about – the Army and the country's best athletes, coming together and proving how similar they really are.
"I've never realized how important the Army guys are until now," Michael said. "I'll pay a lot of attention to them now. They mean a lot to the United States of America."