Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Army Football Preview: at Eastern Michigan

Army travels to Ypslianti, Michigan, this week to take on the Eastern Michigan Eagles.  If you’ve been following the team at all, you will know that this has become a do-or-die kind of game.  
There is a lot to like in the 2015 edition of the Army Black Knights, but even for a team in heavy rebuilding mode, they have underachieved.  The Black Knights are now 0-3 in winnable games, and if the good news is that they’ve been hanging tough even when they get themselves into tough spots, the bad news is that it doesn’t feel like this is a team that knows how to win.  They compete, they fight, but they can’t seem to close games out.  We’ve seen steady improvement, yes, but we’ve also seen too many mistakes, too many critical penalties, and too few adjustments late in games, especially on offense.  This past weekend saw a mediocre ACC team in Wake Forest stumble out of Michie Stadium with a win even after losing their starting quarterback.  Granted, I don’t think that many Army fans expected a win this weekend, but the team got so close and played so well in spots that the end result was extremely disheartening.

The Army Black Knights
In the opener against Fordham, the offense played well, but the defense couldn’t stop anyone.  Since then, the reverse has been true.  The defense has been playing better—though they have had trouble getting off the field on third down—but now the offense can’t move the ball.  We saw that occasionally last year as well, and as a result, last year’s defense gave up some truly inexcusable points late in games because they were getting gassed playing against bigger teams.  If there’s one way that this team has improved over last year’s team, one reason to take hope as the season rolls on, it’s because this year’s Army team doesn’t collapse.  That is a monumental improvement.  However, while the defense may give the team a chance, the offense can’t seem to deliver.  That doesn’t feel like an insurmountable problem, but it’s gotten us off to an 0-3 start.  Army held UConn to 22 points and Wake Forest to 17 (while forcing three interceptions), and I think that’s good enough to win.  However, Army has scored fewer points in the last two games than it scored in the first game by itself.  Worse, Army hasn’t gained more than 300 yards in either of the past two games, and it has less than 20 first downs total over that same period.  This is not getting it done.
Army is averaging 90.7 ypg passing and 207.3 ypg rushing, good for 124th and 48th respectively.  That’s not a bad passing average for an Army team, and indeed, in this past weekend’s game I want to say that QB Ahmad Bradshaw went 2/3, with his single incompletion having hit his receiver square in the shoulder pad on 3rd-and-long.  Meanwhile, Bradshaw has carried 58 times for 333 yards (5.7 ypc) this season, which sounds fine until you realize that his yards-per-carry average is down almost two whole yards since just last week.  A triple-option team absolutely must average at least 300 yards rushing per game, and Army’s not even close to that.  In three games, we’ve seen Bradshaw move the ball well in the first half, only to have opposing defense adjust to key on him late.  He’s been shut down in the second half of both of the last two games.  What was different about the Wake Forest game was that Army finally got the Fullback Dive going in the second half, but after four straight positive plays in the fourth quarter, Bradshaw ran right on a keeper, got stuffed for a five yard loss, and then threw the incompletion that I mentioned earlier.  As has been true all season, the team was been close, but they’re just not quite there yet.
Team Rushing Leaders (via ESPN)
QB Ahmad Bradshaw
FB Aaron Kemper
SB Joe Walker
SB Jordan Asberry
FB Matt Giachinta

Statistic of the week: Ahmad Bradshaw is 52.3% of the offense.  Teams are keying on him on every play because if they can stop him from running, they’ve stopped fully half of Army’s offensive output.  Take into account the possibility of a missed pitch on the outside, and if you’re playing Army, I think you just take your chances with the slotbacks and smear the quarterback on every play.  This is what we saw from UConn and Wake Forest both in the second halves of their games against Army, and it worked brilliantly.  Wake Forest even gave up the Fullback Dive waiting for Army to get impatient and make a mistake.  It’s galling that this worked, but it did.
So far this season, Army has scored 66 points while giving up 76.  That gives the team a P-Wins percentage of 41.7% or 5.0 wins expected in a twelve-game season, all things being equal.  As we’ve noted before, however, all things are not equal.  ESPN is currently projecting Army to go 2.3 – 9.7, good for 125th out of 128 teams in FBS college football.  The good news is that this team has kept all of its games close where some of the old Ellerson teams would have simply folded.  The bad news is that it’s tough to find three wins on the remaining schedule, especially when you consider how much Army has struggled on the road.  Speaking personally, I can accept that this team is in rebuilding mode, but I want to see more improvement, and I want to see the team get a victory before its players become demoralized.
The Eastern Michigan Eagles
In many ways, this year’s Eastern Michigan team reminds me of last year’s Army team.  They are 1-2 after beating 128th ranked Wyoming away, but they’ve dropped home games to 113th ranked Old Dominion and 91st ranked Ball State.  The Ball State game in particular was a bad loss because the Eagles went up 17-0 early and then gave up 28 unanswered points.  Ball State’s Riley Neal went 24/28 for 194 yards and RB Darian Green ran for 164 yards on 25 carries, forcing the kind of demoralizing collapse that Army suffered so many times a year ago.  With that in mind, if Army can’t move the ball against Eastern Michigan, we’ve got seriousproblems.  The Eagles’ offense is a different story, though.  As a team, they are 59th in passing with 238 ypg and 62nd in rushing with 185 ypg, but they are giving up 31.7 points per game (98th), and QB Brogan Roback has thrown as many interceptions as touchdowns.  
It’s hard to know what to make of all of that beyond noting that the Eagles are streaky.  They beat the holy Hell out of Wyoming, winning 48-29, but they dropped a close game to Old Dominion and let Ball State blow them out for three quarters in a row after a fast start just last week.  I don’t know that Army could come back after going down 17-0, but against that, I would argue that at least Eastern Michigan doesn’t have much home field advantage.  Army hasn’t won an away game since 2010, but I’d bet money on Coach Monken having had this game circled on his calendar since the end of last season.  If I was looking to break a streak like that, this is the game that I would target without a doubt.
What to Watch?
This one is easy: can Army move the ball consistently for four quarters of football?  
I believe Army can move the ball for a half, and I believe its defense can force Eastern Michigan to make mistakes, creating turnovers.  But can they adjust when the Eagles start keying on Bradshaw?  Can somebody else show up and make some plays?  
These are the critical questions.  This is what will decide the game.

Rynearson Stadium, home of the Eastern Michigan Eagles.
As of this writing, Army is an early one-point favorite.  If you’re a betting man, you almost certainly take the home team and the point, but I truly believe that Army is going to win this game.  Army hasn’t won a game yet, but the team is improving every single week.  They are very young, but they are fighters.  I think that this is the week that they finally put it together and start turning the corner.  That may not be evident for some weeks yet, but I trust Coach Jeff Monken to see the same things that I do and make the proper adjustments on offense.  That will make a huge difference as we get into the heart of the season.
This weekend’s game is Saturday at 6 pm on ESPN 3.  That’s easy to get on the Internet, and if you have a spare HDMI cable, you can put it onto you TV without issue.

Enjoy the game!

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