Monday, August 15, 2016

Army Football Preview: at Temple

It’s August.  The Summer Scrimmage is over, and we’re only a few weeks away from the start of college football season.  I am more than ready to get it on.  Army opens the 2016 campaign on the road at Lincoln Financial Field against the Temple Owls.
What will this season hold?  Who knows?
When you’re an Army Football fan, all of a life is an adventure.  Every win is a win against the odds.  Let’s go!
The Army Black Knights
It’s hard to know what to expect from this year’s Army team.  The team itself brings back quite a few starters, but they lost a number of key contributors as well, both to graduation and to the nature of the Academy itself.  The team has some experience, but fully half its players are still yearlings[1].  Though many saw action last year, it’s not fair to say that they are necessarily experienced college football players.  The classes of 2019 and 2020 both have plenty of talent--Army already has a handful of plebes who are vying for starting positions--but with only sixteen firsties, this is nevertheless a decidedly young team.  There is some experience on defense, but there are also going to be a few new faces who must step up and become key contributors.  With its youth, Army is perhaps a year away yet from a true breakout season, but they still look immeasurably better than they did last year, and they face an easier schedule, too.  Army fans everywhere are already anticipating better performance overall.
The Black Knights struggled on offense last season for two reasons.  They had trouble getting push with the fullback dive, and both of their top quarterbacks got hurt.  Somehow then-plebe Chris Carter came in against Rutgers and Navy and almost pulled off a miracle.  This created a ton of excitement in the fanbase.  Since then, Army has overhauled its fullback rotation, developed a super-talented slotback rotation, and seen the emergence of WR Edgar Poe as perhaps its best offensive player.  This year’s offense executed well during the Summer Scrimmage, moving the ball effectively in the middle and thereby opening up opportunities on the outside.  If the Army can avoid meaningless fumbles, the revamped offense promises to put genuine stress on even good defenses.  We’ve seen in the past that when Army’s triple-option is working, they can run on anyone.
With an undersized offensive line, however, Army’s quarterback--presumably Ahmad Bradshaw since Chris Carter has a lingering hamstring strain--will have to throw and pitch on the move.  This is especially true against Temple, which boasts a very talented front seven.  If Army can get the ball outside, though, it should be able to take advantage of some opportunities in the secondary.  Teams typically crowd the line of scrimmage to stop the triple option.  But with Poe at receiver and a new bubble-screen look in this year’s playbook, Army has legitimate big-play capability for the first time in years.  It’s unlikely that the Owls will have spotted the revitalized passing game right off, and their secondary has been vulnerable down the field in past years.  If the Black Knights can connect on a few passes, they’ll force Temple to adjust, which should open up the offense considerably.  It will be tough, though, if the center of Army’s O-Line breaks down before its offensive skill players can get moving.  We saw this against Duke last season, and it could happen again against Temple.  Their defensive line and especially their linebackers are excellent players.  Army will need to be quick and precise to move the football.

The Black Knights match up reasonably well on defense.  Temple is built as a run-first team, and the Black Knights are built to stop the run.  The Owl’s best weapon is its dual-threat running quarterback, P.J. Walker.  With Walker and RB Jahad Thomas in the backfield, I would expect to see a heavy dose of read-option and quarterback bootleg plays, plays designed to force the defense to choose a side and perhaps create opportunities down the field.  That stuff is by no means easy to defend, but Army is used to seeing Keenan Reynolds run the triple-option and ought to be as well prepared as anyone can be.  Army’s best defensive players are its inside linebackers, senior captains Jeremy Timpf and Andrew King.  Those guys are not going to be fooled by a lot of misdirection running plays from the quarterback position.  I therefore expect to see Walker throw perhaps a bit more than he’d like, which means that the defensive game rests heavily on Army’s secondary and especially its safeties.  Xavier Moss and Rhyan England need to play big.  It’s as simple as that.
The Temple Owls
Temple is coming off a strong campaign.  They went 10-4, beat Penn State, led Notre Dame at the half, and made it to both their conference championship game and a bowl game, though they lost both.  Then they lost nineteen seniors, three of whom were pro prospects, and I’m not convinced that it’s a good sign that most preseason write-ups note that it’s their offense that now needs to carry the team.  Temple was 67th on offense last year and an outstanding 22nd in defense.  To put it another way, the Owls managed all of 5.3 yards-per-play last year on offense.  That’s worse than Army, which was terrible.  P.J. Walker is 601/1064 passing in his career (56.5%), with his freshman year being his best statistically.  Jahad Thomas rushed for more than 1200 yards and 17 touchdowns, and that’s very impressive.  Still, if you can stop the Owls on the ground, you can absolutely stop their offense.  Though Temple is coming off a great season, they may not be as good this year as they were last.
Defense is a different story.  Three of Temple’s best players are linebackers: Avery Williams, Stephaun Marshall and Jarred Alwan.  The Owls were 16th in points against last year, allowing an average of just 19.2 points to opposing offenses.  I expect to see a lot of run-blitzes, and a few of them are going to work.  Can Army’s quarterbacks get outside before Williams and Marshall get penetration?  That’s the question that’s going to determine the final score.
Match Ups
Two matchups are critical: Army’s defense against Temple’s rushing attack, and Army’s interior offensive line against Temple’s linebackers.  
Can Army hold onto the ball, get positive yardage, and then open up its playbook, or is this going to be another year of offensive futility?
Army has an opportunity here.  Temple is a good team playing at home, and they’ll be more than confident coming off of their success last season.  Against that, it is entirely possible that they’ll look past the Black Knights.  Week One in college football is always full of surprises.  Could this be one of them?
How good is this Army team?  When the offense works, they can run on anybody.  We saw that last year at Penn State, and if the team can keep the ball off the ground, we may well see that again against Temple.  If they rush well and bottle Temple up early, they have a chance.  If they put the ball on the ground, let P.J. Walker run wild, or give up easy passes over the middle of the field, then this game may yet get out of hand.  I think Army matches up a little better in reality than they appear to on paper, but until we actually see them play, it’s hard to have a lot of faith.
Temple ought to be about a twelve point favorite in this game, but as of this writing, the line is actually Army (+16.5), with a predicted score of Temple 34, Army 15.  That's based on last year's statistics, though, so take Army and the points and be ready for a big adjustment in the FPI after Week One.  I don't know if the Black Knights can win, but I think they're quite a bit better than most prognosticators have realized.  Their secondary is much better than it looks statistically, and if the offense fixes the fumbles, We'll have a whole new team on our hands.

Go Army!  Beat Temple!!!

Works Sited

[1] That’s sophomores for you non-Academy types, and this is the last time I’ll say it.  From now on you’re expected to know: plebes, yearlings, cows, firsties.  No one at West Point cares what the rest of the world calls its under- and upperclassmen.

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