Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Army Football Preview: at Ohio State

Army got a hard-fought come-from-behind victory last week against Buffalo, but I don’t know how much confidence it gives me going forward.  The 2017 Black Knights are either a hardy, confident crew who can win games even when they don’t necessarily have their best stuff, or they’re not quite as good as we’d all hoped that they were.  Or maybe the Bulls just match up well against Army’s triple-option because they have so much beef at D-Tackle.  Unfortunately for Buffalo, that particular defense has become a kind of niche advantage in modern college football.
This week, Army travels to Ohio State for a matchup against ostensibly the best team in the nation.  For better or worse, I expect we’ll learn a lot about exactly what kind of team these Black Knights are going to be after this game.
The Army Black Knights
It took longer than expected, but Army finally imposed its will on the Bulls last Saturday, starting maybe five minutes into the third quarter.  Army switched to something like a Cover 1 on defense and brought heavy pressure, and the Buffalo couldn’t answer.  After a run for negative yardage and a strip-sack at the Army 18, Bradshaw and the offense took the ball and held it.  The Fullback Dive got a couple of tough yards, and then a pair of long Option-Pitch plays went for enough yardage to force Buffalo to open up in the middle, and that was that.  The triple option ground the Bulls into the dirt, scoring 14 unanswered points while the defense forced repeated 3-and-outs.
After two weeks, Army has the #2 rushing offense in the country (417.5 yards/game) and a passing offense that ranks dead last.  QB Ahmad Bradshaw has run the triple-option to perfection, leading all rushers with 324 yards on just 34 carries, but he’s gone 2/10 passing for a grand total of 17 yards.  FB Darnell Woolfolk and SB Kell Walker round out Army’s top three rushers, averaging 6 and 17 yards/carry respectively.  Army’s offense is gaining a whopping 6.9 yards/play, completely on the ground!
Eh.  Why pass when you’re rushing for nearly seven yards every time you touch the ball?
On defense, Army is tied for 17th in points allowed with 11.5/game.  This matches up nicely with the 39.5/game they’re scoring on offense, good for a P(wins) of 93% or 11.2 wins expected in a 12-game season.  Granted, two games is a small sample size, and P(wins) assumes unity in strength of schedule.  Nevertheless, you can only beat the teams you play, and so far Army has done that.  Bradshaw will have to hit a couple plays in the passing game at some point to keep the momentum going, but for now, it’s hard not to be excited.
The Ohio State Buckeyes
Arguably no team has been more disappointing this season than the Ohio State Buckeyes.  After opening as the consensus best team in college football, Ohio State fell behind Indiana early before getting on track in the second half.  They then dropped a miserable game at home to Oklahoma, scoring all of 16 points while Oklahoma QB Baker Mayfield dropped 386 yards on them through the air.  At #8, the Buckeyes are still in the Top 10, but given what we’ve seen on the field so far, it’s hard to say that they’re the best.  They’ve scored 65 points but allowed 52, good for a P(wins) of 61% or 7.3 games in a 12-game season.  That sounds about right, all things considered.  Right now, the Buckeyes are a team with some good recruits and a lot of raw potential.  But there are a lot of teams like that in the upper ranks of the FBS.  Few of them make it to the FBS Playoff.

Two games into the season, Ohio State has become a run-first team despite having a senior quarterback.  As of this writing, they are 32nd in rushing with an average of 229.5 yards/game.  Freshman RB J.K. Dobbins leads the way with 253 yards on 42 carries and 1 touchdown.  QB J.T. Barrett is second with 127 yards on 31 carries and a touchdown of his own.  In fact, the Buckeyes are averaging a very respectable 6.1 yards/play right now, mostly on the strength of their rushing attack.  The problem is Barrett’s passing.  He sits just 39/70 for 487 yards (55.7%) with 3 touchdowns and 1 interception.  
I hope the Buckeyes are teaching Mr. Barrett some useful life skills because his numbers are nowhere near NFL-ready.  I hear Hertz is hiring former D-1 athletes to work at car-rental places, so maybe he can do that after he graduates.
Ohio State has elite talent along its D-Line, but no team in the country has given up more yards through the air.  After two games, the Buckeyes have allowed a whopping 806 yards passing, ranking them dead last in FBS pass defense.  They’ve been much stouter against the run, however, giving up 121 yards total in their first two games.  That equates to a very stingy 1.9 yards/carry.  
Folks, that is damn good.
I hate everything about this game.  I mean, I like that Coach Jeff Monken wants Army to be competitive with the very best teams in the country, and I guess it’s good that guys like LBs Alex Aukerman and Kenneth Brinson are going to get game tape against world-class competition.  However, the game itself feels like a blood sacrifice to the Gods of Football, and after getting smoked in their own building last week, odds are excellent that the Buckeyes try to run up the score by way of repairing their ranking in the AP Poll.

P(wins) is not a great metric just two weeks into the season.

The Triple-Option vs. College Football.  The kids these days are running out of the read-option or passing out of the spread.  Either way, they’re spreading the field to try to force defenses to defend vertically and horizontally at the same time, creating mismatches down the field.  Amongst the best ways to deal with this is with pressure from the D-Line, especially from smaller, faster defensive ends who get up field and disrupt offensive plays before they can get going.  
The triple-option works nothing like that, though, which is why it gives traditional college defenses so many problems.  Instead, the option lives on quick handoffs up the middle, creasing the center and gaining four to five yards before even the fastest D-Ends have time to react.  This forces defenses to either play back, opening up the Quarterback Keeper off-tackle, or to run-blitz, opening up the Option-Pitch or quick passing plays down the field or out into the flat.  Army runs more of an inside, misdirection game, but Navy uses that off-tackle quarterback power play on something like 60% of their offensive snaps.  With it, they’ve found success against even very good rushing defenses.  Army ran a version of this same play quite a bit last week against Buffalo’s beefy D-Line as well, occasionally out of a shotgun set.  This is why Bradshaw led all rushers in yardage.  
If Army can get push inside against Ohio State’s big defensive playmakers, then this game might surprise some people.  If OSU’s D-Tackles stay stout at the point of attack and blow up plays at the intermesh, the Buckeyes will probably be able to run up the score.

Army Linebackers vs. J.K. Dobbins.  This game is somewhat reminiscent of last year’s game against UTEP.  In both cases, Army faced an elite running back surrounded by disappointment.  RB Aaron Jones is now a Green Bay Packer, but in their game last season, Army’s defense held him to something like 50 total yards.  If the Black Knights can stop J.K. Dobbins, as well…  
J.T. Barrett is a 50% passer.  He has yet to prove that he can beat people with his arm.  He may throw well against Army’s undersized secondary, but stopping Dobbins still has to be considered the #1 priority.

Urban Meyer vs. his Ego.  OSU should win this game handily.  If they simply bear down and use their size and recruiting advantage to wear out Army’s defense, I’m honestly not sure what the Black Knights will be able to do to stop them.  However, if Meyer decides to show America what a genius he is and how good his quarterback can be making clutch throws from the pocket, he’ll open his team up to all manner of unnecessary madness.  This game stays close if Army’s offense can move the ball at the same time that Army’s defense is taking advantage of OSU offensive mistakes.

The Long Gray Line vs. the Horseshoe.  Ohio State’s stadium holds about 105,000 people.  By contrast, the United States Military Academy at West Point has graduated a little over 72,000 in its two hundred year history.  The Long Gray Line today numbers about 52,000 living graduates with another 4400 in the Corps of Cadets.
So.  The Horseshoe could comfortably fit every living graduate of West Point plus their spouses and the entire Corps of Cadets and their parents and probably still have room for something like 10,000 OSU fans.  
But yeah.  By all means, let’s use this game as the litmus test for how these two programs are going to fare this season overall.
Final Thoughts
I’m a big fan of Eddie George.  He was the emotional leader of the Tennessee Titans the year that I was in Korea, and he and Steve McNair were still in the team’s heyday when I got back home.  In addition to running really well with a football in his hands, George is also an accomplished actor, architect, entrepreneur, and practitioner of the ancient art of yoga.  In fact, he was the cover model for my favorite book about yoga, Real Men Do Yoga.  That’s a terrific book.
Besides that, though, all I know about Ohio State is they say, “The Ohio State University” whenever their graduates are on Monday Night Football.
suspect, however, that Urban Meyer needs a big win.  After getting drubbed by Oklahoma, he needs to change the way the press is covering his team, mollify his school’s boosters, encourage now-wavering recruits, and enhance his own job security. Hanging sixty-plus on the Black Knights on national television can only help his cause.
As of this writing, the line is Ohio State (-30.5).  Oddshark’s computer model actually predicts the score at 38-21, but that seems hopelessly naïve.  The Over/Under opened at 49 but has since moved to 52.5.  
I wouldn’t touch the line, but I’d still take the over.
Army will wear the 1st ID patch for this game.  Kickoff is scheduled for 4:30 on Fox.
Enjoy the game, folks.
Go Army!  Beat Ohio State!!!

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