Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Army Football Preview: Duke

I know what I said last week, but I wound up watching the second half of the game at Penn State, and boy, was it exciting.  I thought for sure that Army was going to drive down and score the go-ahead touchdown with no time remaining, but alas, we’re not quite there yet.  As I said last week, we’ve started to see glimmers of what this team can be, but to actually get there, we’ll need more consistent play from the offense.  It is totally unreasonable to think that you can put the ball on the ground seven times, lose it three times, and still win the game.  Granted, the weather conditions sucked, but still…  That kind of inconsistency will get you beaten every time.

Army’s back at home this week against Duke, and although I doubt it’s what the schedulers intended, this weekend’s game is the statistically toughest of the entire season.  I’m cautiously optimistic, but that doesn’t mean that I am necessarily expecting a win.
The Army Black Knights
Army got the fullback going late in the game against Wake Forest, ran all over Eastern Michigan, and then did very well against Penn State’s #16 ranked defense.  The quarterback keeper was practically the only thing working in the early part of the season, but now the whole playbook is on the table, and it’s made a huge difference.  We’ve seen a ton of counter and misdirection plays, and with better downfield and second-level blocking, this has shown up big time.  The Army team is currently 126th in passing with 80.4 ypg and 10th in rushing with 287.8 ypg, but that’s after factoring in a 261-yard rushing performance against Penn State.  261 yards is not a lot of rushing yardage for a triple-option team, but considering all the turnovers, the fact that the team was playing on the road, and the caliber of the opposition, I think we can safely call it a reasonably good performance.  Whoever the quarterback is this week, he needs to hang on to the snap and make good pitches.  Other than that, I like what we’ve seen of late.  
Overall, Army is scoring 27 points/game (145th) and giving up 26.4 (82nd).  That gives us a p-wins score of 52.6% or 6.3 games in a twelve-game season.  That’s now a consistent number, and it’s the best that Army has looked in a long, long time.  Granted, this is mostly down to the play of the defense.  Still, if you could fix only one side of the ball coming out of last season, defense was definitely the side that needed the work.  ESPN currently has Army ranked 109th of 128 in FBS with a projected finish of 3.7 – 8.3.  As I noted last week, this puts us back to about where we were at the start of the season, with an over/under on total wins of about four.  Army is currently favored against Bucknell and Tulane, so to get to four wins, the team needs to win the games it is supposed to win and then find an upset.  Rutgers and Rice both look vulnerable, and I would give Army even odds against Air Force if that game were being played at Michie Stadium.  Unfortunately, the Zoomies are very tough at home, however.
Truth is, we don’t know what’s in store for the rest of the season, but in a rebuilding year, it’s good to see the team moving in the right direction.  That said, this offense needs to play consistent, aggressive football if the team itself is going to finally take that next step.
The Duke Blue Devils
Duke is a very similar team to Penn State, save for the expectations of the fan base.  The Blue Devils are currently 4-1 (2-0 in the ACC Coastal) with wins against Georgia Tech and Boston College along with a respectable loss to Northwestern, this year’s surprise giant-killer in the FBS.  None of their offensive statistics blow you away—they are 62nd in passing with 230 ypg and 64th in rushing with 173.8 ypg—but their defense is5th overall!  Yes, the Blue Devils have given up all of 10.6 points/game this season, and oh by the way, they beat Georgia Tech (also a triple-option team) by a score of 34-20 just two weeks ago.  This gives them a p-wins expectation of 85.2% or 10.2 games in a twelve game season.  Well, the Blue Devils currently sit at 4-1 with games against Army, Virginia Tech, Miami (FL), North Carolina, Pitt, Virginia, and Wake Forest remaining on the schedule.  They’re favored against everyone except VT and UNC, but they could easily win either of those.  From where they sit now, a 10-2 finish seems like a distinct possibility, and 9-3 would be a disappointment.  Frankly, the job that coach David Cutcliffe has done rebuilding this team is overwhelmingly impressive.  Duke was about on par with Army a decade ago.  Now they have a good shot at winning the ACC Coastal and a bowl game on New Year’s Day.  
Still, I think Duke could be vulnerable.  The team is more fast than big, and their strength is more in their defense than in any aspect of their offense.  This could potentially bode well for Army in terms of match-ups.  QB Thomas Sirk is 101/162 for 1063 yards (62.3%), 6 TDs and 3 INTs.  That is good but not great.  Sirk is also the one of the team’s leading rushers (uh oh), with 62 carries for 272 yards and two more TDs.  That’s bad because Army has struggled all year with running quarterbacks.  Meanwhile, Shaquille Powell is Duke’s best actual running back, with 60 carries for 272 yards (3.5 ypc) and 3 TDs.  That’s respectable, but it wouldn’t lead you to think that this was a team that’s looking to go 10-2 on the year.  Judging by the scores and what I saw of the Boston College game on Saturday, Duke’s defense looks terrific, but their offense has struggled at times against better teams.  They moved the ball well against Tulane, North Carolina Central, and Georgia Tech but struggled against Northwestern and Boston College.  There may be some opportunity there, but it’s hardly guaranteed.  They may also light Army’s secondary up the way they lit up Georgia Tech.

And now, since I know you're wondering about that 1953 season...

What to Watch
I don’t want to over-sell the importance of this game.  We’re into the toughest part of the season now, and if we come through it with a sense of confidence and not too many injuries, I’ll take it.  What we’d like to see here is better, more consistent production from the triple-option, fewer turnovers, and continued good play from the defense.  
Army has played well against the run in all but the first game this season.  I expect that this will continue this weekend.  However, Duke will probably look to throw the ball more than Penn State did, and that’s been Army’s biggest vulnerability.  If Army can eliminate big plays, force the Blue Devils to drive the length of the field, and play tough in the red zone, then they have a chance to keep this game close.  If they fumble seven times, give up big plays over the top, and fail to get push on the inside with the triple option, it’s going to be a long day.

Final Thoughts
As of this writing, the line on this game is Duke (-11).  Kickoff is at noon in Michie Stadium.  Army’s players are wearing the 25th Infantry Division’s patch this week; here’s hoping for a little Tropical Lightning.  If you’re watching at home, the game will be on the CBS Sports Network.
I’ll be there in person with my classmate Amber, and we’ll be screaming our fool heads off, I’m sure.  This only occasionally affects the game, but it beats the Hell out of screaming at my TV.  If you’re wondering, Amber is one of my oldest friends; we actually met on our Swim Team recruiting visit and have been close ever since.  Regardless of how this game turns out, I will certainly enjoy myself.  That said, I would much, much prefer a win.
Go Army!  Beat Duke!!!


  1. Plus, you introduced me to my husband! So there's that. See you soon- can't wait! Go Army! Beat Duke!