Thursday, September 4, 2014

College Football Preview: Army vs. Buffalo

Army Football kicks off its 2014 season at noon on Saturday in Michie Stadium against the Buffalo Bulls.  The game hasn’t seen a lot of mainstream press, but Army is favored by 3.5 points, so I guess that’s something.  Also: the Army Team is rolling out a slightly new uniform.  That can't hurt, right?

Army has a new coach, so it’s a little hard to gauge what to expect.  Considering Army’s history and the history of their new coach Jeff Monken, I’d look for a healthy dose of the run-option, flavored perhaps by the occasional downfield pass.  Monken previously coached at Georgia Southern, guiding that team to a 38-16 record over the course of his tenure.  That’s impressive, especially considering that Monken coached during Southern’s transition from Division I-AA to I-A.  One would expect GSU to face problems similar to those the Army team faces—i.e. difficulty recruiting, perennially undersized players compared to the “big boys” of college football, etc.—but Monken made it work in the big leagues, and that’s what Army Football fans wanted from their new coach.  GSU runs an option attack that looks similar to the one Army’s been running for something like a century now, and although I’m no expert, I thought they looked good last weekend in their game against NC State.  That game was a 24-23 loss, but looking at GSU’s schedule, I expect it was also the toughest contest they’ll face this season, and they damn-near pulled out an upset.
Last weekend Buffalo beat the Duquesne Dukes 38-28, and although I didn’t see any of the game, the stats make it look like a decisive victory.  The Bulls got up early and never looked back.  Their quarterback went 25-36 for 298 yards and 3 touchdowns, and if that wasn’t enough, their top two rushers combined for 153 yards on 39 carries (3.9 ypc) and another touchdown.  The Bulls are currently ranked 33rd overall in passing, 63rd in rushing, 42nd in points for, and 77th in points against.  All of those stats are meaningless if you ask me, save for the passing stats.  25-36 for 298 yards, 3 TDs, and just 1 interception is at least respectable no matter who you did it against.
The Navy game aside, Army had two major problems last season—ball handling and their deep secondary.  Time and time again, Army shot itself in the foot with botched exchanges at critical times in critical games.  I know very little about football from any sort of technical standpoint, but it looked like the problem was the timing of the triple-option handoff.  Army wound up 3-9, but they could have gone 5-7 at least just by fixing this one problem.  At Founder’s Day I heard that Coach Monken has made a point of stressing discipline and attention to detail to his new club, so I’m cautiously optimistic that he’ll get this problem straightened out.  That would help a Hell of a lot.
The deep secondary is a tougher issue.  I remember several games last season where Army’s defense played well, stymying the run and forcing their opponent to go to the air.  They held up okay against the short passing game, but Army’s corners and safeties didn’t have the speed to cover deep, and it became a serious problem against those teams that had a decent downfield passing game.  Army could perhaps cover this—at least in part—by using its standard ball-control offense, but when you add in two or three fumbles, more than half of which were lost, it got the team into a situation where they no longer stood a reasonable chance of winning.  We saw several games last season that started competitive but ended up being blowouts because of lost fumbles and an inability to cover deep.  For Army to be an even middling team going forward, one of these two problems must be fixed very soon.
So.  Army is a ball control run-option team with a questionable secondary going up against an at least reasonably strong passing attack that gave up only 51 yards on 33 carries last week to Duquesne.  Meanwhile, Duquesne threw for 332 yards (18-37, 48.6%), presumably because they were down 21-7 in the 2nd quarter and had no choice but to try pushing the ball downfield.  That didn’t work out for them, and I doubt it will work out for Army, either, if the Army Team again puts the ball on the ground and gives up easy points early.  I’d imagine Army’s rushing attack is a Hell of a lot stronger than Duquesne’s, so bottom line, I’m gonna say that this game will go entirely according to Army’s ability to hold onto the football.  This was not a strength last year, but I believe in the power of positive change, and I’m prepared to believe in the Army Team this year in their home opener.

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