Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Army Football Preview: Fordham

It’s been eight months since Army’s defense knocked down a last second pass in overtime to secure victory over North Texas in the Heart of Dallas Bowl.  Heading into the fourth year of the Jeff Monken Era, expectations for the Black Knights are as high as I can remember them.  Army fans want to see their team build on the success it had last season, and they think they have both the team and the favorable schedule to see it happen.
2017 Schedule
The Black Knights open their season this week against perennial cross-Hudson foes the Fordham Rams.  Though the Rams are an FCS school, they’re familiar with Army’s triple option offense, and they always seem to play the Black Knights tough.  Army is heavily favored, but this game will still be an important early-season test.
What kind of team will the Black Knights field in 2017?  
We’ll get our first glimpse under the lights at Michie Stadium on Friday night.
The Army Black Knights
For a veteran team with an established quarterback, the 2017 edition of the Army Team enters Friday’s game with a lot more questions than fans might want to admit.  We know that firstie team captain Ahmad Bradshaw (40/91 passing for 710 yards, 4 TDs & 9 INTs in 2016; 185 carries for 826 & 8 TDs rushing)  will get the start under center.  We’ll see firstie S Rhyan England, firstie LB Alex Aukerman, and cow LB Kenneth Brinson play on defense alongside firstie captain DE Jonathan Voit.  Beyond that, though, Army has struggled with injuries, academics, and off-field discipline problems, all of which may give a surprising number of plebes first-game reps.
Firstie WR Jeff Ejekam and yearling WR Kjetil Cline have both been suspended by the team for two games for disciplinary reasons.  It looks like yearling SB Kell Walker will be suspended as well, and would-be backup quarterback Chris Carter has been ruled academically ineligible.  All of which comes on top of another would-be starting wide-receiver leaving the Academy over the summer and in addition to former #1 wide-receiver Edgar Poe’s departure post-graduation.  Ejekam was the team’s presumed #1 receiver heading into the season, and he will be missed, but really, this suspension is a bigger loss for Cline.  Despite being arguably Army’s top recruit in 2016, Cline had only just broken into the starters’ ranks.  The Black Knights need Cline to have a breakout season; his sitting in the stands in White-over-Grey was not what fans wanted to see.
Against that, though, Army has gotten good production from its plebe classes in the Monken Era, and 2017 may well continue this trend.  In fact, this has been something of a recruiting tool.  I remember sitting in the stands next to LT Rick Kurz’s parents two years ago during the Summer Scrimmage talking about this exact thing--and Kurz’s father’s excitement that his son might actually get to play meaningful snaps soon.  As it happened, Kurz did contribute in 2015, and he contributed even more last year, and as a cow, he is now Army’s starting left tackle.  SB Jordan Asberry had a strong plebe campaign that same year, and then-plebes Elijah Riley and Kell Walker both had strong starts last season as well.  This year, plebe WR Cam Harrison looks to get the start on Friday, and plebe SBs Artice Hobbs, T.J. Wisham, and Fred Cooper may all see time in lieu of the suspended Walker.  Harrison showed in Army’s final scrimmage that he can catch.  The question now is how well he blocks for the slotbacks on the outside.
Final Notes on offense:
 -- As of this writing, FB Darnell Woolfolk has pulled ahead of Andy Davidson on the team’s depth chart.  Woolfolk served more in the short yardage role last season while Davidson tended to show more speed.  However, Monken tended to stick with the hot hand last season, so it will be interesting to see how this plays out on Friday night.
 -- With Carter out for the season, Army appears to be taking a situational approach to its backup quarterback rotation.  According to reports, yearling QB Kelvin Hopkins looks more like the “throwing” quarterback against cow Luke Langdon’s command of the basic ground-attack offense.  I suspect Monken would like to see Hopkins emerge as the outright #2--he’s been in the mix for #2 since the spring--but not enough to put games at risk.  Again, it will be interesting to see which of these guys see time on Friday night.  Last year, Monken played Carter in the third series every game to keep him game ready.
 -- It’s still preseason, but Army already has a number of O-Linemen banged up.  This has been a consistent problem in the Monken era and one that the coach was specifically hoping to address this summer.  It looks like those changes remain a work-in-progress.
Army has fewer questions on defense but arguably bigger shoes to fill.  I’d expected James “Gibby” Gibson to get the start at safety, but former cornerback Jaylon McClinton is listed opposite England on the current depth chart.  Beyond that, Scott Washle and Cole Christiansen look to start in lieu of former team captains Andrew King and Jeremy Timpf.  Washle in particular is supposed to be a good player who got stuck behind King in the team’s best position group.  That’s not a knock.  I’m excited to see how he does Friday night.
The Fordham Rams
The Fordham Rams have a very good FCS football team, a team that is in its fifth season since implementing athletic scholarships, that is projected to again vie for the Patriot League title, and that may well make another run at the FCS playoffs.  Rams Coach Andrew Breiner is entering his second as Fordham’s head football coach, having gone an outstanding 8-3 in his opening season.  The Rams return seven starters on offense and seven defense, including senior RB Chase Edmonds (257 carries for 1,799 yards & 19 touchdowns) and fifth-year grad student QB Kevin Anderson.  Anderson is a career 430/667 passing (64.5%) for a whopping 5,907 yards with 59 TDs (!) against just 14 interceptions.  Folks, that is outstanding.  Edmonds, meanwhile, is on pace to set a new FCS college record for rushing yards.
Despite some questions at wide receiver, Fordham is expected to field a very good offensive football team.

The Rams are a little harder to predict on defense.  Fordham hired three new defensive coaches over the summer, including former Bucknell secondary coach John Bowes, now the Rams’ defensive coordinator.  There’s bound to be some adjustment there despite the Rams returning seven starters on defense, and in any event, this is the same defense that gave up a million yards at Navy in their season opener last year.  There was nothing sexy about that Navy game plan.  The Mids’ O-Line just knocked Fordham’s defense off the ball every snap.
This is not to say that the Rams’ defense is expected to be bad, per se, but this is not a team that wins by stopping people.  They win by scoring points.
What to Watch
This game features four critical issues.
Army’s Insider Linebackers vs. Chase Edmunds.  Last year’s Army Team saw Andrew King and Jeremy Timpf absolutely stone UTEP’s all-world RB Aaron Jones.  LBs Scott Washle and Cole Christiansen need to have that kind of game against Fordham’s Chase Edmonds, who can be just as dangerous.
Army’s Outside Linebackers vs. Fordham’s O-Line.  Fordham runs a balanced offense through an experienced fifth year grad student quarterback.  He will not beat himself, so LBs Alex Aukerman and Kenneth Brinson need to bring heat.  Even then, Anderson is unlikely to make mistakes.  However, he’ll still need time to get the ball out to his relatively inexperienced receiving corps.
Consistency on Offense.  Army wins this game if it can control the line of scrimmage on offense, limit mistakes, and crush Fordham in time-of-possession.  This Fordham team can put up points, but if Army runs the triple-option cleanly, it will go a long way towards negating the Rams’ team strengths.
Can Army throw without Edgar Poe?  Army is going to get push in the middle of the field.  With SBs Jordan Asberry and John Trainor, they ought to be able get the ball outside on the pitch as well.  But can they make enough throws downfield to keep Fordham’s defense honest?  Can they do it without Edgar Poe, whose extraordinary catching radius was a legitimate asset to a quarterback who’s never going to be a particularly accurate passer?
Passing may not be a critical factor Friday night, but Army is going to have to be able to complete some balls downfield to meet expectations for the coming season.  Speaking personally, I would also like to see Bradshaw dump more balls to Asberry on the outside.
Final Thoughts
ESPN’s Football Power Index currently ranks Army 74th in the nation, just a touch worse than average against the 130 Division I schools currently competing in FBS college football.  In simple terms, Army ought to be about a field goal underdog to the “average” team, currently the MAC’s Toledo Rockets1.  Considering where we’ve been these past twenty years, that’s not too bad.  
Old school for the finish...
ESPN gives the Black Knights 92.3% odds of winning on Friday.  Oddshark’s model predicts a score of Army 29, Fordham 15.  But since this is an FBS/FCS games, official betting lines are unavailable.
Army may win by fourteen, but I think this is a close game for at least three quarters.  I think Fordham puts up plenty of yards and its share of points early, but the Black Knights’ running game will wear down the Rams’ defense over time.  That was the key to success last year, and it will be again.  Still, this is a very good Fordham team, and expecting a blowout is a stupid mistake.  The Rams have a lot of talent, and they know the Black Knights well.
If you’re wondering, I’ve moved my seats for the 2017 season.  I’m now in Section 10, Row R.  If you’re on the team, turn around, look up, and I’ll be the guy screaming at you.  
Yup.  That’s me in the floppy black hat.
I’m parked on Thayer Roof again this season.  If you’re around, come by and say hello.  I don’t know how much we’ll be tailgating on Friday, but we’ll definitely be out later in the season.  Come on out!
Friday’s kickoff is at 6:00 pm.  CBS Sports will carry the game live.  It’ll also be on AM 770 locally and on SiriusXM and/or Tune-In Radio.

Go Army!  Beat Fordham!!!

1. Oddly, Toledo is ranked 62nd of 130, or a bit better than the median.  This implies that it’s harder to go from “good” to “great” in absolute terms than it is to go from “bad” to “average”.  Or, to put it another way, the best teams in college football are much better than the bottom feeders.  Not really a surprise.


  1. With all due respect:

    Hail! men of Fordham, hail! on to the fray!
    Once more our foes assail in strong array.
    Once more the old Maroon, waves on high
    We'll sing our battle song.
    We do or die.

    1. Ha! Excellent!

      FWIW, I like Fordham Football. I only root again them when they play Army.