Thursday, September 15, 2016

Army Football Preview: at UT-El Paso

Army Football beat Rice in its home opener, 31-14.  This week the Black Knights travel to Texas to take on the Miners of UT-El Paso.  Despite getting off to their fastest start since 1996, the Army team faces perhaps its toughest test so far this season on Saturday, playing in conditions that add a significant degree of difficulty to a game that was already going to be tough.
First and foremost is the loss of CB Brandon Jackson, who was killed in a car accident on Sunday.  Jackson was a brilliant player, arguably the best in Army’s secondary, and his loss is an unbelievable tragedy.  He was an extremely promising young man, as known for his ready smile as for his play at cornerback, and he will be sorely missed.  The guy was an absolute joy to watch.

Jackson was one of the emerging leaders on this young Black Knights team.  His teammates now have to grieve his loss while figuring out how to move forward on the field.  I have no doubt that they will play hard to honor their fallen, but it’s a tough task.

#28 Brandon Jackson.  Be thou at peace.
The Army Black Knights
Tragedy notwithstanding, Army is off to a good start.  After two games, the team is averaging 338.5 yards/game rushing, good for 4th in FBS college football.  They held the ball for more than forty minutes against Rice despite the fact that Rice did a decent job stopping the Fullback Dive in the center of the field, forcing a majority of the rushing yards to come either off-tackle or along the perimeter.  True, FB Andy Davidson still ran for over a hundred yards, but a surprising number of those yards came when he managed to get out into space, away from the teeth of the Rice run defense.  Army has thrown for an average of 40.5 yards/game, which is good for 128th (last) in the FBS but is nevertheless promising given the way the last two games have unfolded.  Army quarterbacks are 6-11 for 81 yards on the season.  This isn’t going to win them any awards, but it has been more than enough to keep the chains moving in a handful of critical situations.  WR Edgar Poe currently leads the team with 3 catches for 57 yards, a whopping 19.0 yards/catch.  That is outstanding.
Army is averaging 29.5 points/game, which puts them tied for 73rd in the BCS.  In terms of total offensive efficiency, however, the Black Knights rank 27th.  This tells us what we already know, that the team isn’t a high-flying circus act, but they move the ball at a steady pace.  Army averages a very respectable 5.0 yards/carry on the ground.  That’s been good enough to win ballgames.
Army’s defense is off to a similar start.  They’ve allowed an average of 270.0 yards/game and 13.5 points/game, putting the team into 21st in scoring defense and 37th when measuring total defensive efficiency.  Last week, we saw Rice score on two long plays, a pass over the middle and a long run between the tackles.  Beyond that, the Owls’ offense did very little.  In fact, Rice didn’t run a single play inside Army’s red zone.  Add in the fact that Army has forced 5 turnovers, three interceptions and two strips-sacks, and what we’ve seen is two very good defensive performances in a row.  This will be key over the next few weeks.  Starting Saturday, Army has three road games before Homecoming on October 15th.
Stats on Army's Schedule, year-to-date.  Click to enlarge.
The UT-El Paso Miners
It’s hard to know what to make of UTEP.  The Miners opened with a 38-22 win over a struggling New Mexico State team after putting up 17 points in the game’s second quarter.  This was enough to put the contest out of reach despite a late NMSU scoring surge.  The Miners’ other game was a 41-7 loss to the same Texas team that just beat Notre Dame.  I’m not sure what this second loss says besides that Texas has a very good football team.
ESPN’s Football Power Index currently has UTEP sitting 118th out of 128 in the FBS.  Theoretically, this puts them 15.2 points worse than the “average” FBS team, or about a 9-point underdog at home against Army.  However, I find it hard to believe that Army is 83rd in the FPI given that the team is around 25th in total team efficiency.  It’s also weird that the Black Knights are supposedly 2.9 points worse than an “average” FBS college football team when Navy is supposedly a half-pointbetter than “average” after they very nearly gave up a 21-point halftime lead at home to UConn!  These statistics are generally useful in spotting trends, but it’s worth noting that past performance is not always a good predictor of future expectations.  This is especially true when we’re just two games out of the offseason.
Here’s what we know.  UTEP QB Zack Greenlee is a respectable 15-27 for 229 yards/game (55.6%).  He was out against Texas with a knee injury, however, so all of those yards came against NMSU.  Greenlee remains questionable for Saturday, but if I had to bet, I’d bet that he plays.  UTEP’s best player, however, is RB Aaron Jones.  In two games, Jones has carried 49 times for 372 yards, an outstanding 7.6 yards/carry.  Jones rushed for over 100 yards against Texas and flat ran over NMSU.  The Miners typically run out of a shotgun spread, and Jones has major-league speed.  This has creates serious opportunities when he gets into space.  What’s impressive is that Jones has been able to take advantage of these opportunities, outracing defenders even against a very good team like Texas.  
UTEP runs a spread offense, but it’s a spread with a ton of running.  The Miners are averaging just 151.0 yards/game passing but 212.0 yards/game rushing.  
That is straight pounding the rock.
The flipside of this is that UTEP has given up 380.5 yards/game and 31.5 points/game, granted with a whupping by Texas inflating these numbers.  I haven’t been able to find much on UTEP’s defense beyond a note that they are undersized.  So is Army.  What we know is that UTEP held Texas in check for not quite all of one half before getting overrun.  That’s not particularly unusual in a big school/small school match-up.  More concerning is that UTEP gave up some yards late to NMSU, but by then they were up big.  It’s not guaranteed that they were even playing their starters at that point, and anyway, we only have two games’ worth of data.  Right now, I doubt even UTEP knows what it has on defense.  They’re probably looking at Army as a critical early-season test of their own team.
There are two critical issues here, and neither has over-much to do with football.  First, how does this team respond to the loss of a teammate?  
Tom Surdyke gave his life to save a
drowning swimmer in a rip current off
Long Island. For this act, he was
awarded the Soldier’s Medal.
I hate it for them, but they have to move forward.  
It’s not going to be easy.  This has been a tough stretch for the Corps of Cadets.  They lost a cadet at Ft. Hood during flooding over summer training, one of Jackson’s classmates was then killed saving a drowning swimmer off the coast of Long Island a month or so later, then the football team lost a new Grad at the Infantry School at Ft. Benning, and now they’ve lost their best cornerback.  The Corps is only 4,000 strong.  Each of these tragedies will be deeply felt by a significant portion of the cadets.  The Class of 2019 has been hit particularly hard, and for better or worse, losing a classmate feel exactly like losing a family member.  It’s tough.
The other issue—the one that I thought I was going to be writing about this week—is that UTEP has a high altitude stadium.  It is apparently high enough that the Miners have a handful of recruits who struggle with Altitude Sickness every year.  How is Army’s defense going to react over four quarters played at altitude?  We can be thankful that this game isn’t being played in the daytime, too, when desert heat and attitude would both have been a problem, but this is still a significant concern.
Nevertheless, if Army’s defense can slow down RB Aaron Jones, the Black Knights have an excellent chance to come away with a win.  The good news is that run defense is the strength of Army’s team.  For all the Longhorns’ talent, Texas doesn’t have a particularly good run-D.  Amazingly, the Black Knights might actually have the best run defense that the Miners have seen so far this season.
On offense, Army needs to do what it does and not let distractions get the best of them.  If the Black Knights’ offense can grind out another time-of-possession victory and continue to avoid turnovers, this will go a long way towards getting both the team and the Corps as a whole through what is sure to be a tough week.
As of this writing, Vegas has yet to release a line for the game due to the uncertainty surrounding QB Zack Greenlee’s knee.  Oddshark claims that Greenlee is likely to miss the game, but I still think he plays.  UTEP moved the game to primetime and has been promoting it like it’s a Bowl Game.  They’re going to put their quarterback out there if it is at all possible.  Nevertheless, the projected scores ought to make Army about a 9-point favorite.  Considering that UTEP’s offense rests mostly on its star running back, I’m not sure how much difference Greenlee’s presence or absence will make.  I think the game will be closer than nine points, but there are a lot of unpredictable elements.  How will Army respond?  Who will start at quarterback for the Miners, and how will they respond to the drubbing they took from Texas?  These things make predictions tough.

The game kicks off at 7:00 pm Eastern on the American Sports Network (ASN).  That’s not even available here in Connecticut, so I’m either going to have to stream it online or follow it on satellite radio.  I have an event down at the Housatonic Boat Club Saturday night, and my wife volunteered me for grilling duty, so radio seems more likely.  Yes, if you’re wondering, I am a Master Griller.  It’s worth noting, too, that Army live-tweets its football games, so if you see me on Twitter a lot, that probably means that I got stuck trying to follow the game via in-game social media updates.  Hopefully, I’ll be able to cook hamburgers amid the frantic phone-watching that this will almost certainly entail.
Hang tight out there, folks.  Grip hands, and hug your loved ones.
Go Army!  Beat UTEP!!!

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