Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Army Football Preview: at Penn State

Army finally got its offense going on Saturday, running all over Eastern Michigan in their own building.  There’s still plenty to critique, of course, but in an obvious rebuilding year, we are finally beginning to see at least some small glimmer of what this team might someday become.  After watching the team lose three tough games by a grand total of ten points, it was good to see them win one.  They needed the lift, and I expect that win will do the team some good as the season wears on.  This is especially true because it was a much-needed road win, the team’s first since November 2010.

Unfortunately, any possible hope of building on Army’s nascent success is almost certain to die a sudden and painful death.  Yes, Army fans, it’s that time again.  It’s time for West Point’s annual blood sacrifice to the Football Gods.  Last year it was Stanford.  This year we’re traveling to College Station to take on the Nittany Lions of Penn State in the house that Joe Paterno built.
The Army Black Knights
Up until last Saturday, Army’s entire offense ran through yearling QB Ahmad Bradshaw.  He personally accounted for over 50% of the team’s rushing yardage, and he’d even completed a few passes.  It looked to me like Eastern Michigan came in prepared to stop Bradshaw no matter what, and that was a problem because this was the same week that Army Coach Jeff Monken determined to get the Fullback Dive going no matter the cost.  The result was a field day for Army’s fullbacks and tailbacks with the offense putting up over 500 yards on the ground.  Save for a few plays towards the end of the game, the Quarterback Keeper never looked great, but the Dive and the Toss Sweep both worked exceptionally well, and the result was an utter rout.  Army’s defense gave up 36 points, and that’s hardly ideal, but save one short stretch in the 3rd quarter, the contest was never close.  In the end, Army won the way it always wins, by controlling the tempo and time-of-possession.  The fact that the game devolved into a road shoot-out doesn’t change the fact that the basic plan worked exactly as designed.
Putting up 600+ yards of offense will do wonders for your team statistics.  As of this writing, Army is 9th in rushing yards, averaging 294.5 ypg.  Passing stats are virtually unchanged at 92.5 ypg (125th), but it’s worth noting that this is a decent amount of passing for an Army team and that Army has made at least one really good passing play in every game so far this season.  There were several this week, but the one that stood out to me personally was a Bubble Screen to the outside, run out of the standard triple-option set.  That play is a staple of Air Force’s triple-option, and I think it fits this particular version of Army’s football team pretty well, too.  Army needs to continue to develop ways to get the ball to its playmakers in space, especially in context with its struggles with the Fullback Dive.  If QB AJ Schurr gets the start this week—and I think he will—then this is the kind of play that his particular style ought to benefit greatly.
Army is now averaging 31 points/game (109th) and allowing 28 points/game (84th).  That is not the way I would have bet prior to the season, but if the offense can stay productive, it’s not a bad start.  What’s weirder, though, is that Army is now at 56.0% on a P-Wins basis, good for 6.7 games in a 12-game season all things being equal.  Granted, all things are never equal, and they are particularly unequal this week, but it’s still true that Army has been close three times and won once in a blow-out.  P-Wins is therefore telling us what we should be able to see ourselves.  This team can turn the corner, but it needs to stay consistent on offense.  ESPN’s more complete statistics haven’t quite caught up with P-Wins’ optimism, but even there Army has moved up to 115th out of 128 FBS schools.  That is a jump of nine spots after just one game.  ESPN is now predicted a final record of 3.4 – 8.6, which is about where we were before the loss to Fordham.  In English, that means that Army is now favored against Bucknell and Tulane and that the team has a roughly 40% chance of beating either Rutgers or Navy.  For a team that dresses enough true freshmen to actually play an entire game without any upperclassmen at all, that’s not bad.
The Penn State Nittany Lions
Penn State has gotten off to a rough start.  They lost to Temple on the road in Week 1 and then beat 99th-ranked Buffalo by a surprisingly small margin in Week 2.  They seemed to bounce back against Rutgers, but this is still a team that’s scoring all of 25 points/game (165th) against at best modest competition—mostly at home!  Their defense has played better, allowing a mere 16.2 points/game (21st), but overall this has to be considered a disappointing year.  As of this writing, the Nittany Lions are ranked 41st in the FBS, and marque QB Christian Hackenberg is just 56/106 for 668 yards (52.8%) for 4 TDs and 2 INTs.  Penn State as a whole is averaging around 170 yards in the air and on the ground both, good for 107th and 72nd respectively.  None of that is super-impressive.
If this was all you looked at, you might think that Army has a chance.
P-Wins gives us a different perspective.  Penn State has scored 102 points while allowing 65, good for 63.1% or 7.6 games in a 12-game season.  They’ve beaten Buffalo, Rutgers, and SDSU, they’re heavily favored against Army, Indiana, Maryland, and Illinois, and they have about a 60% chance of pulling out a win against Northwestern, Michigan, or Michigan State.  ESPN’s statistics agree; they project a final record of 7.2 – 4.8.  That said, if I was betting over/under on Penn State winning 7.5 games this season, I would take the over.  With that in mind, ESPN gives Penn State a 94.7% chance of winning on Saturday, and that’s about all you really need to know about the game.  Vegas hasn’t put out odds because of the injury to Ahmad Bradshaw, but the drop off from Bradshaw to Schurr is marginal at best.  Assuming the two quarterbacks are exactly equal, the line ought to start somewhere around Penn State (-21).
I don’t know what to think about that beyond noting that I have no plans to watch this game myself.
What to Watch
As I said, I cannot in good conscience recommend watching this game.  What’s the point?  I don’t even know why it’s on the schedule.  Getting smashed on the road on national TV isn’t going to help Army in any conceivable way, and it might well get a few players hurt.  Meanwhile, Penn State needs some quality wins against good opponents,  but beating Army isn’t going to prove anything.  At the end of the day, this game hurts Penn State’s strength of schedule, and it’s liable to get a bunch of Army players hurt.  Why did either side think this was a good idea?

Beaver Stadium seats far more people than have graduated from West Point in its
entire 200+ year history.  In fact, every living graduate could attend this game with
their spouses
and the Corps of Cadets, and we would still have room for a bunch of
Penn State fans in the upper decks.
Army has trouble getting pressure, and Penn State has trouble throwing the ball.  But Army also has a habit of making mediocre quarterbacks look like world-beaters, and that’s what you’ll see this weekend.  With all day to throw and bigger receivers than Army has D-Linemen, Hackenberg will find his Tight Ends over the middle for huge games.  That will be that.  You may also see fast wide receivers getting open over the top for big gains (or pass interference calls), and as the game wears on, Penn State’s rushing attack will take over and smash Army to pieces.  Speaking personally, I just want to avoid getting guys hurt before the games that matter.
I’ll say Penn State covers the spread.  Final score: 35-9.
If you must watch, the game is on ESPNU at noon.  I recommend packing plenty of beer.

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