Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Army Football Preview: at UConn

Last week’s loss to Fordham was so demoralizing that I find myself wondering if there’s any point to writing the rest of these previews.  I mean, come on.  You look at this schedule and tell me who exactly this team is going to beat?  Given what we saw Friday, there are exactly three winnable games going forward.  The problem, however, is that two of those games are away, and this is a team that hasn’t won an away game since 2010.  Maybe Army beats Bucknell at homecoming.  Honestly, that’s hardly a given.  By the time the Bucknell game rolls around, I expect this team to be so busted-up and demoralized that we’ll be lucky if they even show up at the stadium.
Did they show up last week?  The offense did.  The defense did not, however, and special teams gets a “meh” with an asterisk.  Kick coverage was pretty good, but this team cannot be trusted to attempt field goals, and the return game was mediocre at best.  And anyway, kick coverage doesn't matter much when your secondary gives up eighty-five yards on slant patterns over the middle of the field.

Is it too early to hit the EJECT button?  I ask because Jeff Monken’s tenure is off to a rocky start.  He’s recruiting better than Ellerson did, and he’s got the offense playing a better, more disciplined brand of football.  That stuff is good.  Plus, QB Ahmad Bradshaw looks amazing.  That’s actually a miracle.  However, if Ellerson’s defenses had a tendency to get beat deep, they were at least generally competent otherwise.  Undersized and slow but mostly in the right positions.  Monken’s defenses can’t even say that.  
Okay, yes, Army lost its best defensive player when Josh Jenkins got hurt.  However, they still got gashed relentlessly by an FCS school in their own building.  They got beat on every single drive by a school that gives out zero athletic scholarships.  Think about that for a moment.  The score was 37-35, but that was with Fordham spotting Army seven points in the first minute and with Fordham receivers who dropped two sure touchdowns in the end zone.  Truth is, this game was only close because of a few fluke plays.  The stats tell the story, and that story is bad.
The schedule looks ugly right now. Where are the wins?
There is no one thing you can point to and say, “Army’s defense does this one thing well.”  Nothing.  They are actively terrible.  They are so relentlessly, consistently bad that the blame must fall on preparation.  They were not out-muscled or out-manned by FCS Fordham.  They were unprepared.
Wait until Army travels to Colorado Springs, and Air Force hangs fifty and then sends three of our guys to the hospital.  That’s what out-muscled and out-manned looks like, and oh yeah, we have Penn State coming up in a month--at Penn State!  Unfortunately, it looks like they might actually have something to prove in that game.
Tell me again why I’m doing this?  Because if it’s a labor of love, it’s the kind of love that usually requires whips and chains and a red room of pain.  That's not normally my thing.
And yet here we are.
The Army Black Knights
The Black Knights are currently ranked 81st in total offense with 35 points on 389 ypg.  Ahmad Bradshaw is the nation’s #15 leading rusher with 143 yards on 20 carries (7.2 ypc).  Bradshaw was 6/14 passing for 107 yards, 2 TDs and 1 forgivable interception.  Plebe Jordan Asberry is the team’s leading slotback with 56 yards on 5 carries (11.2 ypc).  Those are good individual performances, especially considering the number of times that Bradshaw had to try to complete passes in something like a hurry-up.  However, Army is only ranked 21st in rushing nationally with 256 yards, and considering that they played an FCS school that really struggled to stop them in the early going, that number isn’t great.  By way of comparison, Navy put up 371 yards rushing against Colgate and Air Force put up 394 yards rushing against Morgan.  
Those are the kinds of numbers that Army put up last year as well, but it’s no secret that Coach Monken wants to throw the ball more.  It’s hard to evaluate the differences in a single game, but this year’s squad appears to be more versatile overall, and that’s good.  Last year’s Army team lived and died by the Fullback Dive.  This year the team looks most comfortable taking the option outside.  That’s what we expected.  Bradshaw has quite a bit more speed and elusiveness than did Angel Santiago while none of the current fullbacks can match Larry Dixon’s toughness between the tackles.  Eventually, I would expect teams to start playing Bradshaw a lot tougher than Fordham did, but this will either open up the middle or give Asberry room to run outside.  Either outcome is wholly acceptable.
That’s where the good news ends.  Army is currently ranked 91st in total team defense, having surrendered 37 points on 445 yards--322 passing and 123 rushing.  Granted, we knew that Fordham was a good passing team, but that’s a lot of rushing yards to give up to an FCS school when the strength of your defense is supposed to be your linebackers.  In fact, if you take out that one 85-yard passing play in the first half, this game looks like a dominating ground performace by a well-balanced offense.  Army got torched in the air, but they also got torched on the ground, and that is a serious problem.  To succeed, this team needs to find something it can do well and then scheme to cover its weaknesses.  We’ve seen nothing to suggest that they can do anything like that.
The Connecticut Huskies
Ordinarily, I would say that the Huskies are a good matchup for Army.  Connecticut held off FCS Villanova at home in its opener to win by a score of 20-15.  That’s not an ass-kicking, and Villanova is in no way as good a team as Fordham.  
Connecticut is currently 66th overall in passing with 202 yards and 74th in rushing with 105 yards.  Quarterback Bryant Shirreffs went 12-20 for 2 TDs and 1 INT.  Ron Johnson led the Huskies rushing attack with 69 yards on 23 carries.  Connecticut’s defense is currently ranked 48th overall, having given up 303 yards with 114 of those on the ground.  Team defense is supposed to be UConn’s strength, but Villanova had the ball in the fourth quarter with a chance to win; they just couldn’t get it done.  That’s not surprising, perhaps, but Army’s liable to mount a much more potent rushing attack against a defense that got gashed on the ground last week by a smaller school.  
As far as match-ups go, this is as good as it gets.
What to Watch
The cliche in football says that, “defense travels”.  Army spent all off-season shoring up its defense in the hopes of traveling better, but then the team got fucking demolished in its own building in the opener.  Maybe Fordham is a better team than we realize, or maybe Army can make some adjustments to at least keep themselves in the game.  This is the critical question.  Can Army play enough defense to at least offer the opportunity for the other team to make a mistake?  Can they look like they belong in college football?  It’s fine for DBs to give up short completions underneath, and it’s fine to give up the occasional long running play.  What we can’t have is for the safeties to get beat over the top and across the middle while the linebackers also get gashed between the tackles.  Army is not going to beat anyone like that regardless of how well its offense plays.  
This defense needs some sort of identity.  Someone has to step up and change the game.
On offense, this game ought to be interesting.  UConn bottled up Larry Dixon early in last year’s matchup but had few answers for the option-pitch outside.  Army’s offense was simply faster than UConn’s defense, and when the Huskies made adjustments to compensate, Dixon started running downhill.  Last year’s game would never have been close save for the typical Army mistakes and fourth quarter defensive collapse.  Even with those things, this was still the best game that Army played all season.

The good news is that Army’s offensive strength this year goes right at UConn’s most glaring weaknesses.  If Army runs the ball well and controls time-of-possession, this is a winnable game.  However, if the team gives up 85-yard slant patterns over the middle with any regularity, there are no offensive heroics that will change the ultimate outcome.  I believe in Bradshaw as Army's QB, but man, he and plebe Jordan Asberry aren't at the point of putting the team on their backs just yet.  They're gonna need at least a little help out there.
As of this writing, UConn is favored by 6.5 points.  If this game is played on a neutral field, I think it’s a pick’em.  However, with Army’s road record I’d be loathe to take the Black Knights even with that spread.
If this is a close game, I think Army wins.  If Army’s defense gets gashed early, and the team falls behind, this team may actually go winless in 2015.

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