Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Army Football Preview: North Texas

Army fans saw one of the best games in the history of Army Football this past Saturday, and that’s really saying something.  But honestly, what more could you ask?  We had a glorious mid-60° day without a cloud in the sky, Homecoming in front of a sold-out crowd at the height of the fall leaf season, and Army putting fully nine touchdowns on the board while allowing only one.  This was a great game in what has become a very exciting season, and fans everywhere are feeling it.

This week, the Black Knights host their second home game in a row, taking on the Mean Green of North Texas.  With the way this season has shaken out, this weekend’s game has become arguably the most important game remaining on the schedule aside from the Navy and the Air Force games.  If Army wins on Saturday, then the Black Knights have an excellent shot at making a bowl appearance.  If they don’t win, the path to the postseason becomes much, much more difficult.

The Army Black Knights

Save for a missed chip-shot field goal at the end of regulation against Buffalo, Army has done pretty much everything its fans could have asked in the third year of Coach Jeff Monken’s tenure.  Though the team remains young, especially on offense, they lead the nation in rushing with 366.8 yards/game.  Last week, the Black Knights put up more than 671 yards of offense and 31 first downs despite playing without their leading rusher, FB Andy Davidson, and his backup, FB Darnell Woolfolk.  Yearling Cole Macek carried the load instead, rushing for 111 yards on just 17 carries (6.5 yards/carry).  That’s not a bad day’s work.  
Importantly, Army has been spreading the load.  As of this writing, Army fullbacks have carried approximately 43% of the time, with quarterbacks carrying 31%, and the balance (~25%) going to slotbacks via the pitch outside.  Ideally, I suppose that we’d like to see those percentages favoring the slotbacks a little more, but we’ve seen multiple teams try to crash the center and take away the pitch, leaving QBs Ahmad Bradshaw and Chris Carter to take what was available.  Duke has been the only team to effectively cover both the quarterback and the pitchman, but even they gave up more than 100 yards rushing to Davidson.  Save for a few costly fumbles, several of which occurred in a hurricane, and a few untimely chop-block penalties, Army’s offense has been almost unstoppable.
Amazingly, the defense has played even better.  Army’s defense has allowed just 14 points/game, good for 4th in the FBS.  They sit no less than 2nd overall, giving up just 245.2 yards/game.  Only Michigan has been better, with Florida’s outstanding SEC defense ranking immediately behind the Black Knights.  That Florida comparison is one to which we’ll return later.  For now, Army has been particularly good against the run, and even more than that, they’ve also managed to get pressure on opposing quarterbacks, too.  That’s been rare the last few years.
Army has two areas where it needs to improve.  The first is placekicking.  With starting kicker Mitchell Howard injured, the Black Knights have really struggled to kick touchbacks.  They also lost a game in Buffalo on a missed field goal.  In a season where the offense has been good and the defense excellent, Army’s special teams are currently ranked 91st of a 128 teams in the FBS.  Considering the number of punts that Army has blocked this season, that’s a tellingly bad statistic.  The other issue is completion percentage passing.  As of this writing, Bradshaw and Carter are collectively 24/50 (48%) for 411 yards, 3 TDs and 2 INTs.  That is an outstanding 9.2 yards/pass, but 3:2 is not a real great TD:INT ratio, and 48% passing isn’t going to scare anyone.  Speaking personally, I would like to see both quarterbacks throw more high-percentage passes to running backs in the flat as an additional way to get the ball outside in space, especially when SBs Jordan Asberry and John Trainor are in the game.  The harder this team can make it for opponents to crowd the line in the middle of the field, the better they are going to perform overall.

The North Texas Mean Green

The Mean Green have been an FBS doormat for years, but with the hiring of Coach Seth Littrell, those days appear to be over.  This year the Mean Green are 3-3, 3-2 in conference play, and tied for first in Conference USA-West.  They have wins over Rice and Marshall and losses to Southern Methodist, Florida, and to a very good Middle Tennessee team[1] that is itself a rising star in Conference USA.  The big change for North Texas appears to have come when they went to freshman QB Mason Fine.  Fine is only 5’10”, 170 lbs[2], but he’s 68/111 (61.3%) for 733 passing in the past three games with 3 TDs and no interceptions.  Overall, the Mean Green are averaging 10.2 yards/play passing, and Fine in particular has gotten better with each game.  All of that is very impressive.
I mention this because if we just look at the macro statistics, the Mean Green do not look like a very good team.  FPI has them at 116th of 128 in the FBS.  P-Wins gives them a mere 45% winning expectation, or 5.4 wins in a 12-game season.  They are 92nd in passing (205.2 yards/game), 97th in rushing (145.2 yards/game), 59th in points-for (31.0), and 76th in points against (28.7).  However, as Bill Parcells used to say, “You are what your record says you are.”  The Mean Green’s record says that they are far better than these statistics suggest.  
What’s going on?
North Texas got their asses whupped by Florida in Gainesville, and though that game was itself an outlier, it badly skewed our base statistical analysis.  If we take the Florida results out, then, we see a better picture.  Suddenly the Mean Green have a winning expectation of 55%, or 6.6 wins in a twelve-game season, and as I noted earlier, their freshman quarterback goes from completing 27% of his passes against the Gators to 64.3% against the Thundering Herd.  That’s quite an improvement.
The reality, then, is that the Mean Green are in the first year of what looks to be a highly successful rebuilding campaign.  Yes, they got trucked in the Swamp by Florida, but beyond that, they’ve been highly competitive.  Their defense is respectable, and their offense is improving.  They would probably like to rush for more than 3.9 yards/carry, but their leading running back, Jeffery Wilson, has carried 93 times for 564 yards (6.1 yards/carry) and nine TDs.  That’s terrific.  Wilson also won the game against Marshall, breaking off a 75-yard run just when his team needed a boost late.
North Texas has a lot going for it.  They’re also coming off a bye to meet an Army team that is itself in the midst of a successful rebuilding campaign.  This should be a very close, very competitive game.


Teams that have beaten the Mean Green have done so by limiting their offense.  SMU did it, Florida did it, and Middle Tennessee did it.  Recall, Army has a defense that’s ranked one spot ahead of the Gators.  I therefore believe that the Black Knights can limit RB Jeffery Wilson.
If you’re North Texas, you attack Army through the air.  We saw Lafayette do this with a series of quick outs, and I expect North Texas will do the same.  If they can get decent protection, they'll try to push the ball down the field as well.  If Army’s defense has one critical vulnerability, it’s to the deep pass.  Meanwhile, North Texas’s leading receiver is Thaddeous Thompson, who has 21 receptions for 327 yards (15.6 yards/catch) and 1 TD.  If Thompson has a big day, the Mean Green could very easily win this game.  However, if OLBs Alex Aukerman and Kenneth Brinson get consistent pressure on QB Mason Fine, watch out.  
Ultimately, this is what will decide the overall outcome.
On the flipside, the Mean Green’s weakness comes from their rushing defense.  They’re currently tied for 87th, having allowed their opponents to rush 241 times for 1,134 yards and 11 TDs.  That’s an average of 189.0 yards/game or 4.7 yards/carry.  Army is going to run right at that, and if they can hold onto the football and play mistake-free, they ought to win this game.  
It helps that Coach Monken is expecting to get FB Andy Davidson back before Saturday.  WR Edgar Poe also returned to practice this week, but according to Monken, he’ll be a game time decision.  All things considered, I expect we won’t see E. Poe until Army travels to Wake Forest next week.

Final Thoughts

Kickoff is at noon on the CBS Sports Network.  As of this writing, Army is an 18.5-point favorite, but that’s absurd.  Sure, the Black Knights have been very good against the spread, and they may very well win this game, but it’s not going to be a blowout.  These teams are much more evenly matched than they appear from just a cursory glance at the statistics.  
If you’re wondering, I’ll be at the game with my daughter Emma.  Last time I checked, there were still plenty of seats available, which I flat don’t understand.  This is going to be a great game.  You guys should definitely come out and support the team.
Go Army!  Beat North Texas!!!

[1] Middle Tennessee is 4-2, ranked 77th in FPI, and they took Western Kentucky to double-overtime just this past weekend.  As a guy whose folks were from Middle Tennessee, I would very much like to see Army put MTSU on its schedule sometime in the next few years.
[2] That’s about my personal in-season height/weight from back when I swam at Army--in the early 1990s!  So yeah, he’s not a real big guy for a D-1 quarterback.

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