Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Army Football Preview: at Rice

That was an ugly win.  A win is a win, so I suppose I’ll take it, but it certainly wasn’t the kind of game that inspires confidence going forward.  About the best we can say is that Army got behind because of its own stupid mistakes and still managed to fight through and find a way to finish strong.  That’s fine as far is it goes, but they’ll need a better effort this week to take advantage of a Rice team that ought to be at least somewhat vulnerable.

The Army Black Knights
Perhaps the most important statistic of the week is this: Army has played seven straight weeks in a row.  Injuries have started to take their toll as a result, and we saw the results against Bucknell.  I’ll spare you the recap (my recap is hereESPN’s is here), but the injury situation is getting serious.  Starting QB Ahmad Bradshaw went down with a shoulder injury in the first quarter Saturday, forcing AJ Schurr to come in and play despite having a bruised thigh.  The offensive line has been a patchwork for the last several weeks, so much of the improvement we saw in the running game against Eastern Michigan and Penn State appears to have evaporated, especially between the tackles.  It didn’t help that Aaron Kemper, Army’s best fullback, was out with a concussion last week, and of course, the team has been without Josh Jenkins, its best cornerback, all season long.  The defense is still hanging tough, but they didn’t get much pressure against Bucknell, and that’s not a great sign.  This is a team that has fought to stay in games, to keep games close, and even to win a couple, but I can well imagine that they are ready for a break.

Army managed 263 yards on 61 carries last week for an average of 4.3 ypc.  That is not great.  As of this writing, the team is 11th in the FBS in rushing with an average of 259.3 yds/game, mostly on the strength of their performance against Eastern Michigan.  Ideally, a triple-option team should rush for 300 yds/game every week.  It would be okay if I thought Army was throwing the ball well enough to compensate, but despite the fact that they’re averaging a respectable 81.6 yds/game in the air (126th), the actual execution last week was poor.  Schurr badly underthrew all three of his long balls, and slotback John Trainor dropped an easy first down catch on a wheel route.  The winning play was a long ball, it’s true, but that should have been an interception.  WR Edgar Poe simply out-jumped his man and came down with the ball.  That was a miracle more than it was a positive play.

The larger statistics tell the same story in a different way.  ESPN currently has Army as its 114th team out of 128, with a currently projected final record of 3.2 – 8.8.  Despite the win on Saturday, the Black Knights’ performance against Bucknell actually hurt its overall standings, costing it .1 win off of last week’s projection.  
P(wins) is a little more optimistic, showing a winning percentage of 40.7% against an “average” team based solely on points for and against.  This translates to 4.9 wins in a 12-game season, but to get to that vaunted total, Army would need to win three of its last five games.  That’s not as crazy as it may sound, but I will personally be more than happy if the team can beat Tulane as currently projected and win any one of the other games remaining.  Rice and Rutgers look the most vulnerable, but we need to see better, more consistent play out of the offense to have a realistic chance against either of those teams.  Right now, Army is averaging all of 23 points/game (194th), and that’s not gonna get it done, especially when the defense is giving up 27 points/game (71st).  The defense is playing okay, but they have to bail out the offense so often that the entire team is struggling as a result.

The Rice Owls
At a glance, Rice looks like a team with a great offense that has trouble scoring touchdowns along with a wholly lackluster defense.  ESPN currently has the Owls ranked 99th of 128 in the FBS with the #59 offense and the 121st defense.  This is a little misleading.  The Owls average 237.0 ypg passing (62nd) and 200 ypg rushing (31st), but they’re only scoring 29 points/game (tied-119th) while giving up a whopping 37.8 points/game (116th).  That gives them a p(wins) value of 35.4% or 4.2 games in a 12-game season.  Those statistics might lead you to think that this team is a rushing juggernaut with a soft defense, but in fact, Rice averages only 4.1 yards/carry while passing for almost 8 yards/completion (Army averages 5 yards/carry rushing by way of comparison).  On top of that, Rice has gotten blown out three times this season, once by Baylor (70-17), once by Texas (42-28), and once by Western Kentucky (49-10), but they’ve manhandled lesser schools, and they’re coming off a bye.

Frankly, I have no idea what to do with any of that.  Analysis doesn’t exactly leap off the page.

Well, we know that QB Driphus Jackson can play.  He lit Army up over the middle of the field repeatedly last year, and he’s having a good season this year, too.  As of this writing, he’s completed a very respectable 92/148 for 1121 yards (62.2%), 9 TDs, and only 4 INTs.  He’s also rushed 60 times for 92 yards and 2 TDs, though half of that came on a single scramble.  Meanwhile, Rice has four running backs with more than 200 yards, but none of them stand out as clearly superior in the box scores.  ESPN is projecting Rice to finish 6.6 – 5.5 with a 78.9% chance of winning this weekend.

Rice's stadium

What to Watch
If Army wins this weekend, it will be because they manage to establish the inside running game against a struggling defense.  That ought to be possible, but given Army’s inability to get the fullback going with any consistency, the team’s injuries, and the fact that Rice is coming off of a bye, it is by no means a given.
Rice has played exactly one close game this season, and it was two weeks ago at 103rd ranked Florida Atlantic.  The Owls won that game 27-26 on a fourth quarter comeback drive, so we know they have heart.  The Army team has heart, too, and if AJ Schurr can get healthy and play the kind of game he’s capable of playing, this is a game that the Black Knights can win. 

Final Thoughts
Army has been looking for a breakout win all season.  They finally won on the road at Eastern Michigan, but Rice is a much better team than the Eagles, and a win in their house would say a lot about where the Black Knights are headed.  The team needs to play disciplined, aggressive football, they need to handle snaps and pitches, and they need to run with authority between the tackles, but we’ve seen all of these things at various times throughout the season.  Army needs to turn the corner, to finally put it all together and have that complete game that we’ve all been waiting for.  I don’t know if this is the week for it, but it could be.

Saturday’s game is at noon on Fox Sports 1 and/or the Fox Sports Network and on 770 am locally.  I have no idea how hard either of those will be to get on my personal television, but I suppose we’ll find out.  The team will be wearing 1st Cavalry Division patches.  Here’s hoping that helps.

Go Army!  Beat Rice!!!

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