Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Army Football Preview: at Duke

If you’d told me in August that Army Football was going to start the season 3-1, I would have been ecstatic.  I expect this is true for most Army fans.  Army’s win at Temple, however, and their dominant performance against UTEP served to raise expectations significantly.  Army still has young team, however, and they remain subject to all the highs and lows inherent in the kind of massive rebuilding project which, at the very least, seems finally to be underway at West Point.  
#GoArmy! #BeatDuke!!!
If statistics count, then the truth is that Army played reasonably well against Buffalo, even in a loss.  The offense gained over 400 yards on the ground and 21 first downs.  The defense held firm for three quarters, and even once things started to change, the team still had a chance to kick a chip shot field goal to win at the end.  Yes, the penalties were bad, we had two turnovers, and special teams ultimately cost us.  No, that doesn’t doom the season.  It does, however, mean that this team is still searching for the kind of lock-down focus that marks championship caliber squads.
Army travels to Duke this week for its second major road test of the season, a game that many people believe will show fans once and for all what this team really has.  This week’s game is indeed a significant and important test, but each game is its own story.  That is especially true for a team that remains very much a work-in-progress.

The Army Black Knights
The easiest way to tell Army’s story this season is in terms of its team efficiencies.  Of 128 FBS Division I college football teams, Army is ranked 29th in offense, 45th on defense, and 114th on special teams.  That puts the team 38th overall, which is great except that the Black Knights just dropped a game because of poor kickoff coverage and poor placekicking.  ESPN’s Football Power Index puts Army 74th, or right at “average,” all things considered.  This seems a little odd considering the efficiency scores, but FPI takes strength of schedule into account, and Army hasn’t exactly been beating ranked teams of late.  Still, the Black Knights lead the nation in rushing, with an average of 374.8 yards/game, and they stand tied for 13th in points-allowed, with an average of just 16.  As we said at the outset, this is clearly a team with some talent.  The defense is a little harder to quantify than is the offense, but we’ve seen excellent play from Army’s linebackers, making this team very tough to run against.  Army remain young at cornerback, however, which has made the secondary vulnerable to long passing plays when the D-Line cannot generate any pass rush.
There are other reasons to be concerned besides the team’s youth at cornerback.  Army tends to be undersized on its D-Line, which makes rushing the passer a tough ask.  Defensive coordinator Jay Batemen dialed up some very effective blitzes against Temple, but those same looks were not as effective against Buffalo.  WR Edgar Poe is out for at least a few weeks with a hand injury, and without Poe, QB Ahmad Bradshaw’s completion percentage has dropped to 47.6%.  On the season, Bradshaw is 10/21 for 166 with no TDs and no INTs.  Army is getting 7.9 yards/attempt from its passing game with Bradshaw, and I think that’s okay, but a better completion percentage would make running the ball easier, and it would certainly help this team convert long 3rd downs.  
Bradshaw has also had to carry more of the load in the last few games.  Against Temple, Army’s fullbacks dominated, with Bradshaw himself carrying for a mere 50 yards.  Since then, teams have steadily adapted to the fullback dive, forcing Army quarterbacks to carry more and more often.  Bradshaw himself led the team in rushing with 126 yards on 22 carries against Buffalo, and yeah, that’s great, but it’s also a tough way to win ball games.  The triple option works best when it’s an even split among ball carriers.  For this, though, Army needs to continue to get good push in the middle of the field.  We saw that push start to break down for the first time against Buffalo, and the Bulls also did a good job of stringing out the pitch.  This left Bradshaw himself having to make too many plays.  
Finally, Army obviously needs to be able to hit chip shot field goals in big game situations.  Of course we would all rather score touchdowns, but shit happens in Division I football, and for this reason, placekicking is an absolute must-have.

Basic statistical comparison.  Click to enlarge.
The Duke Blue Devils
Last year’s Duke team started red hot, with a defense that was ranked 9th in the nation headed into their game at Michie Stadium.  The Blue Devils went on to beat Indiana in the Pinstripe Bowl last season 44-41 in overtime, but then QB Thomas Sirk got hurt during the offseason.  Redshirt freshman Daniel Jones has been Duke’s starter ever since, and he hasn’t played nearly as well as Sirk did.  Meanwhile, Duke’s  defense--though still reasonably good--hasn’t performed to nearly the same level.  
Duke currently ranks 33rd in passing (290.4 yards/game) and 85th in rushing (155.2 yards/game).  They are 86th in scoring (26.8 points/game) and 53rd in points-allowed (24.6 points/game).  QB Daniel Jones is playing okay, but the Blue Devils have struggled to run the ball, and they’ve had some turnovers.  Jones is now 125/197 for 1,414 yards (63.5%) with 6 touchdowns but also 8 interceptions.  He’s carried 44 times for 124 yards (2.8 yards/carry) and 3 touchdowns but has also had a few fumbles.  RB Jela Duncan leads all Duke ball carriers with 56 carries for 314 yards (5.6 yards/carry) and 4 touchdowns.  That’s pretty good.  However, as a group Duke ball carriers have been much less impressive—200 carries for 776 yards (3.9 yards/carry).  Considering that the Blue Devils have run nearly twice as many running plays as passing plays, we can begin to see why their offense has struggled.  It’s very tough to consistently win games with a struggling running game and a young quarterback who’s prone to throwing interceptions, especially when you also give up the occasional strip-sack.
Although Duke’s struggles this season have mostly been offensive—they’ve needed to run the ball to protect their young quarterback but have struggled to do so consistently—their defense has also given up a lot of yards at times.  After five games, Duke’s defense has given up an average of 252.2 yards passing and 119.2 yards rushing this season, but if we take out the statistics from the Blue Devils’ opener against FCS North Carolina Central University, we see Duke giving up almost 300 yards passing and 140 yards rushing per game, and that’s a lot less impressive.  Against Notre Dame’s suspect defense, the Blue Devils were able to gain 500 yards on offense themselves and win a shootout.  Other teams, however, have had better success keeping the Blue Devils’ offense in check.

Duke limited Northwestern and Virginia both to 80 yards rushing.  However, those teams both threw for more than 300 yards, and Virginia forced 5 turnovers.  Army is not going to win that way.  Instead, the Black Knights’ template was laid down by Wake Forest behind dual threat QB Kendall Hinton.  Hinton threw for 133 yards against Duke and rushed for 63 more, putting pressure on Duke’s defense, which wound up allowing the Demon Deacon to rush for 239 yards total.  Wake didn’t outgain Duke, but they did control the line of scrimmage and win time-of-possession.  That was enough to force mistakes.
If Army is going to win this game, it must do the same.  The Black Knight’s triple-option offense is tailor-made to win time of possession.  The defense excels at stopping the run.  These things should be enough to put pressure on a young Duke offense that has struggled to protect the ball.  Against that, however, is the reality that Army itself has a very young secondary that is prone to giving up passing yards down the field.  Army can probably limit Duke’s rushing yards, but can it also create turnovers when opportunities present themselves?  Can the Black Knights correct their own mistakes and bounce back from a miserable performance in Buffalo?  These are the factors that will decide who wins what should be a fairly even contest overall.

Final Thoughts
As of this writing, Duke is a 4-point favorite at home.  That sounds about right, but I will point out that Army has historically been very good against the spread.  Also, I don't know if you've noticed, but Hurricane Matthew is even now headed up the East Coast of the United States, with the potential to impact this specific game rather significantly.  To that end, I asked my buddy Brian, a corporate meteorologist, what he thought the prospects were for the weather on Saturday around kickoff.  He sent the following official forecast:

"Durham, NC, Forecast:

"Cloudy with heavy rain all day and winds 15-25 mph sustained, gusting 30-40 mph. Rainfall 3.00 – 5.00” with higher amounts possible."
This game was already liable to be a slugfest, but that weather report indicates that it's going to be a slugfest played in a monsoon.  As Brian put it to me when we spoke, "You'll see torrential rain all day.  Nobody's gonna be throwing in that."

Yeah, well, they're probably not going to be kicking too much, either.

Kickoff is at 3:30 on the ACC Network and WatchESPN.Com.  I’ll be watching and hoping for the best.
#GoArmy! #BeatDuke!!!

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