Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Army Football Preview: UT – El Paso

I did not much care for that Tulane game.  In his post game press conference, Coach Jeff Monken said that he felt like the game was Tulane’s to lose, that the Green Wave nearly let Army steal one, but I still think that Army had the better team most of the day.  The Black Knights just couldn’t quite put it all together at the critical moments.  It was maddening as Hell to watch.
Alas, those kinds of games are a little easier to tolerate at Michie Stadium.  It’s cathartic to scream at the team, and I think the long post game walks back to my car are good for the soul.  Screaming at my television does not feel nearly as productive, and what’s worse, my pacing back and forth makes the dog nervous.
What can you do?
Thankfully, we’re back at Michie this week for a showdown against FBS doormat UT – El Paso (UTEP).  I’m taking the whole family on Saturday, and this time the Black Knights had better freaking win.  Having dropped a winnable game on the road, Army’s season now has next to nothing in the way of margin for error.
The Army Black Knights
As much as anything, last week’s loss was a reminder that this team is still developing.  Maybe we saw a breakthrough last year, but Army’s had some good one-off seasons in the past without seeing a long-term step-change in performance.  Even after going 8-5 and beating Navy, there remains plenty to do.  Even last year, we saw Army lose 4 games out of 6 right in the middle of the season.  Were it not an incredibly strong performance in the second half against Wake Forest just eleven months ago, we’d be remembering 2016 very differently right now.  
Army is kicking off better, they made a long field goal Saturday, and they’re slowly developing a return game.  They’re also getting good push from their interior O-Line, so the Fullback Dive is working.  But they don’t quite have the degree of depth that they need to go the distance given the kinds of injuries and academic issues they’ve seen this year, especially in the secondary and the receiving corps.  That’s becoming a problem.  In particular, it doesn’t seem like the Option Pitch is going anywhere on the outside, leaving QB Ahmad Bradshaw to carry the load inside along with his fullbacks.  The offense has been grinding out massively long possessions with its power running game, but without the threat of a long run from the A-backs, they’re under tremendous pressure to be perfect for extended periods of time.  
Perfect is not an easy thing to be.
Better production from the wide receivers would help.  Better blocking on the outside would make the offense infinitely more versatile, as would some semblance of a passing threat.  But even there, most of Army’s targets have gone to SB Jordan Asberry.  Of the four passes that Army has completed this season, Asberry has one, SB Kell Walker has one, TE Zack Saum has one, and FB Calen Holt has one.  Army wide receivers have collectively done jack shit.  Firstie WR Jeff Ejekam was expected to be Army’s new #1 on the outside, but he’s become a total non-factor.  Ejekam was suspended the first two games for team discipline.  Has he even come back?
I honestly have no idea.  He’s like the invisible man out there.  
Army lost one wide receiver to graduation and one (presumably) to academics, and now seemingly NO ONE can catch.  Almost every ball this season has gone to a guy coming out of the backfield.  Bradshaw threw at least 75% of his balls downfield in 2016--to his wide receivers.  He doesn’t have the world’s greatest accuracy, but he gave his guys a chance to go up and get the football, and until the North Texas game, he was well over 50% completion percentage.  Now, he’s completing just 1 pass in 5, and he’s not even looking for receivers downfield.  That is more than just a change in quarterback accuracy.  
On the defensive side of the ball, well, they’re fine when they can avoid giving up 75 yard running plays.  ESPN currently ranks them 98th in total defensive efficiency out of 130 FBS college football teams, but that’s nothing to brag about.  They let Buffalo QB Tyree Jackson throw all over them, and they spotted Tulane 150+ rushing yards and 14 points in just two plays.  Other than that, they’ve been okay.  Granted, it’s a little easier when your average offensive time-of-possession is 35+ minutes/game.
On the plus side, Army’s defense is only giving up 20.5 points/game (42nd).  That’s not bad.  However, without any kind of home run threat at all, the offense’s production is down to just 25.8 points/game (91st), and that’s becoming an issue.  Either this team needs to get the consistent stops at critical times, or the offense needs to score every time it has the chance.  Otherwise, 2017 may well turn into the season of “What Might Have Been”.
The University of Texas at El Paso Miners
If it sounds like I’m down on Army this week, well, it could be worse.  We could be UTEP.  The Miners are off to an 0-4 start, having lost decisively to Oklahoma, Rice, Arizona, and New Mexico State.  Four weeks into the year, UTEP has already started tinkering with its coaching staff, having appointed a new offensive coordinator and a new quarterbacks coach.  They’ve also seen starting QB Ryan Metz go down with a shoulder injury.  Metz played last week against NMSU but had a terrible, multi-interception game.  On the year, he’s 34/69 for 313 yards (49.3%) with just 1 touchdown against 3 interceptions.  
I’m honestly not sure why they rushed him back.  Senior QB Zach Greenlee is 16/25 for 135 yards (64.0%) for 1 touchdown and 1 interception.  That’s better than Metz on every count.

UTEP hasn’t seen much offensive production regardless.  Philosophically, the Miners are trying to feature the running game out of a spread set, using a running back by committee system.  That much I remember from last year.  However, their best two backs together are averaging a shade less than 4 yards/carry with a long run of just 29 yards and a single touchdown between the two of them.  That works out to 62.8 yards/game rushing, good for dead last in FBS college football.  Through the air, the Miners are putting up a moderately better 147.5 yards/game passing (118th).  All of which explains why UTEP is scoring just 12.8 points/game, ranking them 127th overall.
They’re not stopping anybody, either.  Rice’s anemic offense hung 31 points on them, and their I-10 rivals New Mexico State put up nearly 500 yards in total offense in addition to forcing 5 turnovers.  Overall, UTEP is allowing a whopping 47.8 points/game, good for 128th in FBS college football.
This week’s matchups seem pretty straightforward.  As noted earlier, however, Army Football itself has a few things to work on.
Army Secondary vs. UTEP Quarterbacks.  Ryan Metz will start against a banged up Army secondary.  I doubt S Rhyan England comes back for the game, and until CB Elijah Riley gets back from academic probation, Army’s cornerbacks remain a decided work-in-progress.  Yearling S Jaylon McClinton has been a revelation, but England’s backup Max Regan was out of position a few times on Saturday.  Hopefully, an additional week of starter’s reps will get Regan into his groove.  It took Riley a few weeks as a starter to find his footing last year, and I suspect that Army will need Regan to perform before the year is out.
Army Wide Receivers vs. UTEP’s Secondary.  It’s no secret that Ahmad Bradshaw has struggled throwing the ball.  This is the week that his wide receivers need to step up, assert themselves, and make some plays down the field.  They need to open up holes on the outside and get the full power of Army’s playbook into this game.
The Fullback Dive is fine, but it shouldn’t be the entire offense.

Defense vs. the Run. Last year’s Army defense was 4th in the nation with particular success against running teams.  This year… not so much.  In fact, both these teams have struggled to stop people carrying the football.  Army has allowed 119 carries for 708 yards (177.0 yards/game; 5.95 yards/carry) and 8 touchdowns.  That puts them just past middle-of-the-pack, thanks mostly to a few busted coverages and bad angles in pursuit.  By comparison, UTEP has given up 181 carries for an astounding 991 yards (247.8 yards/game; 5.48 yards/carry) and 15 touchdowns.  
Yup.  That’s almost 250 yards/game.
Final Thoughts
If I’m Army’s offensive coaching staff, I want to run at UTEP with power, get a lead, and then open up my playbook.  Over the past two weeks, the Black Knights have become entirely one-dimensional.  But they’ve also seen two teams play the triple-option in very specific, very disciplined ways.  Army made it work by pounding the fullback, but they badly need to find a way to become more diverse.  They also need to find a way to get the ball out into space.  Ordinarily, that means the Option Pitch, but both Ohio State and Tulane played the pitch very well, even at the cost of giving up chunks of yardage in the middle of the field.  
I don’t think we’ll see that again until Army faces Duke later in the season.
As of this writing, Army is a 24-point favorite at home.  I don’t know if they can cover that massive spread, especially coming off of last year’s 66-14 ass-whooping, but I do think that the Black Knights win the game.  If they can avoid giving up any more ridiculous big plays, they ought to win handily.
Kickoff is scheduled for 3:30 on CBS Sports.  If you don’t get CBS Sports, do yourself a favor and download the app.  You can watch by subscription and stream games to your TV using a Google Chromecast.
Via the 101st Division's Twitter account.
Army will wear the 101st Airborne (Air Assault) Division patch.
Go Army!  Beat UTEP!!!

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