Thursday, December 11, 2014

Army Football Preview: The Army-Navy Game

After a long, oft-disappointing season, it’s finally here.  The game.  Army-Navy.  In many ways, the other games barely matter.  If Army can win this one, the team will salvage its season and bring hope to soldiers and veterans serving around the world.
The Army-Navy Game is Saturday at 3:00 pm.
Army’s season has definitely had its moments.  The team started with a promising win over Buffalo but then lost a pitch in the fourth quarter at Wake Forest and seemed to stumble as a team immediately thereafter.  The loss at Yale the following week was a bad one, and although Army rebounded and won another game against Ball State at home, they followed that win with another egregious loss at Kent State, arguably the worst team in FBS college football.  Rice and Air Force both shellacked Army at home, and suddenly Army fans everywhere looked ready to crawl into their foxholes and wait until next year.  But then Army traveled to Yankee Stadium for its annual New York City neutral site game and won, beating UConn in dramatic fashion.  I was at that game, and it was the best time I’ve had watching Army Football in more than a decade.  Against UConn, Army finally showed the discipline and speed it needs to have success against the FBS.  Army lost the following week at Western Kentucky, but the team looked good for a half, and if not for a few critical special teams mistakes, I expect that game might have gone very differently.  Army closed out its season with a very good win against Fordham, an 11-3 FCS team that has looked exceptionally good all season.  At this point, it’s fair to say that although Army Football has had its problems, the team has improved noticeably over the course of the season.  This is about the best that we could have hoped for, I think, considering that we are not quite a full year into new head coach Jeff Monken’s tenure at West Point.

Statistically speaking, Army has held steady all season.  With one game left, Army Football is ranked dead last in passing (64.5 yds/game), 6th in rushing (305.5 yds/game), 84th in points scored (26.3 points/game), and 109th in points allowed (34.4 points/game).  That yields a p-wins value of 34.6% or 4.15 games in a 12-game season.  It should come as no surprise, then, that Army currently sits at 4-7 and is a heavy underdog for this weekend’s contest.  Statistically speaking, that’s the expected outcome.  It has been for a while now.  It’s a decided improvement over last season, but it’s an incremental improvement rather than a true change of state brought on by a change in the coaching staff.  The Army team has become a little more consistent as the season has worn on—better in the running game and less prone to inexplicable turnovers—but the team has never found an answer to bigger, more physical squads.  Army’s defense has struggled in the fourth quarter all season as well, and when opposing defenses get penetration in the middle against the triple-option, Army has been hard-pressed to move the ball.  Still, when Army gets the Fullback Dive going, the offense is a juggernaut, grinding out yardage and time of possession with a seemingly endless array of misdirection runs to the outside and straight-ahead power running from Fullback Larry Dixon.  
When it’s working, Army’s offense is a thing of beauty.
Navy’s season has been similar to Army’s.  Granted, they didn’t start at the bottom of a twelve-year abyss of hideously bad football decisions, but they run the same offense, have dropped the same kind of inexplicably bad games as Army, and they’ve gotten trucked a couple of times by some of the same teams.  Western Kentucky beat Navy bloody at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, and Air Force won the Commander-in-Chief’s trophy with some authority following a game in which they pounded Navy into the turf.  In years past, Navy has looked dramatically better than Army.  This year they’re sitting at 6-5 mostly by virtue of a decade’s recruiting advantage.  Wins against Temple and South Alabama are impressive, but the statistics show a team that has an advantage by degrees, not by light-years.  Navy has played in a bowl game in ten of the last eleven years.  In saying that this particular year has been something of a down year for Navy, one must also admit that the program itself is a well-run machine.  Catching up is not necessarily going to be easy.  
Navy Football is ranked next-to-last in passing (87.6 yds/game), 2nd in rushing (357.8 yds/game), 33rd in points scored (34.5 points/game), and 89th in points allowed (29.9 points/game).  That yields a p-wins value of 58.4% or 7.01 games in a 12-game season.  Bottom line, Navy does what Army does, but they’re much more consistent with it.  That gives them a substantial advantage.  Quarterback Keenan Reynolds runs their offense efficiently.  He’s only 43/96 for 749 yards passing this season (44.8%), but he’s thrown 5 touchdowns.  Meanwhile, he’s carried the ball 205 times for 1082 yards (5.3 yds/carry) and scored 20 times with his feet.  He battled a knee injury early in the season, but that looks to be behind him now, so I doubt it will be a factor.  Statistically speaking, if Army can stop Reynolds, they can stop Navy.  That, however, is easier said than done.
The UConn game showed the template Army needs to follow if it wants to win games.  Run the ball, grind out yardage, grind up the clock.  We saw it work early in the season against Buffalo and Ball Sate, we saw it work against UConn, and we saw it work for a half against Western Kentucky.  When Army can settle in and pound the rock, they win.  When they get behind early and/or give up stupid turnovers, they lose.  They’ve moved the ball well all season even against good teams.  I think they can move it against Navy.  To win, they need to hold the ball and stop Navy quickly in the early going.  Make Navy play from behind and force Reynolds to throw.  Make no mistake, that is a distinct possibility.  The Army team has more than enough talent to make it happen, especially on offense.  They just need to execute.
I would be remiss to end this preview without mentioning the Army-Navy Swim Meet.  It's this afternoon.  The Army Mens’ and Womens’ Swim Teams are both a couple of years further along in their rebuilding process than is Army Football, and at this point, both teams are far, far better than they have been at any point since at least 1991.  Both teams are actually good—in an absolute sense—with the Women owning a recent dual meet victory over Michigan State.  Last I looked, both teams were ranked in the Top 40 nationally.  That’s unbelievable!  I make no effort to follow Navy Swimming, but I believe Army’s chances of winning this year's dual meets are excellent.  At the rate things are changing, Army Swimming is only a year or two away from sustained dominance over Navy in the pool.  That is a very, very good thing.
General Douglas MacArthur famously said, “On the fields of friendly strife are sown the seeds that on other days on other fields will bear the fruits of victory.”  Nevertheless, past leadership regimes at West Point placed little to no emphasis on sport.  They allowed recruiting, but they didn’t care about victory, and Army sports suffered.  The current regime is different, however, making allowances for sports schedules in some military training schedules and allowing some Corps Squad teams to underload academically during the year in order to more fully support the requirements of practice at the collegiate level.  To say that I’m jealous is the understatement of the year.  I usually did okay first semester, but I habitually carried D’s and F’s into Spring Break and then had to study like mad just to pass all my classes.  It cost me .5 on my GPA every single year, but it was worth it, easily.  Ultimately nobody cares what your GPA was at West Point, they only care that you graduated.  Meanwhile, the experience of college swimming, of swimming at the Academy, was the most challenging, most rewarding thing I’ve ever done.  Nothing else will prepare you to stay awake for four days as a platoon leader in quite the same way that 5 x 300 butterfly @ 3:30 will.  The Academy is about pushing you past your limits and finding yourself intact on the other side.  So is college swimming.  So, I would imagine, is college football.  This is why MacArthur was right.  This is why Navy and Air Force have been able to produce excellent sports teams without compromising the quality of the officers they’ve been commissioning.  
It’s about excellence.  There is no substitute.
Cadets can wear their choice of unit patches when playing
in the Army-Navy game.  I would wear this one, from the
3rd Infantry Division, based at Ft. Stewart, GA.
Can Army finally beat Navy?  The Army team enters this game as a 15-point underdog, and the game is in Baltimore.  This year’s team hasn’t traveled well.  On the other hand, this year’s team has been excellent at times, and they’ve improved consistently.  They’ve shown they can win.  They have the talent, especially on offense.  They need to play quality football, and they need to avoid mistakes, but they lack nothing except confidence and quality execution.  Mistakes will kill this team.  But then, one night of transcendent play will elevate these players for the rest of their lives.

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