Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Army Football Preview: Beat Navy!!!

What a year this has been for Army Athletics.  Last year’s performance in Baltimore seemed to spark something in the Corps of Cadets, and indeed, it’s now been nearly eight months since Navy has beaten Army… in anything.

Alas, that streak is almost certain to end with the women’s swim teams tomorrow night, but this has nevertheless been one Hell of a run for Army Athletics.  When the football teams meet on Saturday, it will cap one of my favorite all-time seasons of Army sports.
But though momentum seems to be on the Black Knights’ side, make no mistake.  This will be a very close, very hard fought contest.
The Army Black Knights
Quarterback and team captain Ahmad Bradshaw has been the story of the season.  Army’s leading rusher has 1,472 yards on just 189 carries, giving him a whopping 7.8 yards/carry.  That puts him first all-time on Army’s single-season rushing list with two games left to play, just ahead of former Tennessee Titans and Atlanta Falcons FBCollin Mooney (‘09).  What’s most impressive is his number of carries.  Though Bradshaw is without doubt the centerpiece of this Army offense, he personally has been just 29% of the offense by snap count.  Bradshaw carried 23 times against Air Force and 27 times in the track meet at North Texas, but beyond that, it’s been highly unusual to see him carry 20+ times in a game.  Indeed, Army’s fullbacks are the true workhorses, with Darnell Woolfolk and Andy Davidson averaging 5.4 and 5.5 yards/carry, respectively.  Add in SB Kell Walker’s 553 yards on 76 carries (7.3 yards/carry), and you get the nation’s best rushing attack, collectively averaging 368.1 yards/game and 30.6 points (45th).
These Black Knights can run on anyone.  They ran for 259 yards at Ohio State a week after the Buckeyes got smoked at home by Oklahoma and needed to prove their toughness to the nation.  By way of comparison, mighty Wisconsin gained just 60 yards on 32 carries this past Saturday in the Big 10 Championship against that same OSU team.
Alas, the questions this year have all been on defense.  Army gained 561 yards at North Texas and scored 49 points, but they still a lost a game that they probably should have won, basically because they couldn’t stop the Mean Green passing attack.  This has been the Black Knights’ problem all season.  They’ve been pretty good in Red Zone defense, but they’ve given up too many big plays.  Army has allowed an average of just 21.6 points/game, owing to good play near the end zone, but they’ve been beaten deep more times than I can count, and especially during the middle part of the season, they allowed a lot of long running plays as well.  Army’s defense hasn’t generated the kind of consistent quarterback pressure that it got last year, though they’ve still managed a bit more than 2 sacks/game (tied-57th).
However, the defense has been better, especially against the run, since the return of S Rhyan England and CB Elijah Riley at Air Force.  The Black Knights allowed just 89 yards rushing against both Air Force and Duke and 103 yards rushing at North Texas, and they got better pressure in those games as well, garnering 2 sacks each against Air Force and North Texas and 4 against Duke.  Still, QB Arion Worthman missed a wide open receiver for a touchdown early in the Air Force game, and QB Mason Fine absolutely killed Army with the deep ball two weeks later.  I don’t know how much this will matter against Navy, but if Army’s corners can’t cover one-on-one against Navy’s receivers, it could be a serious problem.
The last point to make is on special teams.  Kick and punt coverages have been basically good all season, and Army has blocked a few timely punts, but K Blake Wilson is just 3/7 on field goals.  He was better through the middle of the season, but the last few games have seen a regression to something like last year’s form.  That’s not good, especially heading into what it liable to be a tight contest.
The Navy Midshipmen
As they did last year, Navy started the season hot but cooled as injuries and inconsistent play took their toll.  The Mids reeled off 5 straight wins to beat FAU, Tulane, Cincinnati, Tulsa, and Air Force.  They then dropped a close game to Memphis, and ominously, the Tigers forced 3 fumbles and 2 interceptions, mostly by focusing their defensive attack on Navy QB Zack Abey.  From this point forward, the AAC’s better teams seem to have gotten a read on Navy’s offense.  Losses to UCF and Temple followed, and though the Mids finally got a “W” against SMU to earn bowl eligibility, they went on to drop their last two games, losing to Notre Dame and Houston.  Heading into the Army game, Navy has lost 5 of their last 6, and if not for their blowout win against FAU in the weeks before HC Lane Kiffin had gotten a chance to teach his new team their offense, the Mids’ season point differential would actually be negative.  That’s a legitimate problem for a predominantly offensive, ball control team.

Regular readers of this blog will already know that I’m not a huge fan of Zack Abey’s game.  Here’s why: Abey carried 278 times for 1,322 yards (4.8 yards/carry), and yeah that’s great, but it’s also fully 39.7% of the Mids’ offensive snap count.  This in a season where Abey himself was knocked out of at least 2 games (Memphis and UCF) and didn’t start in 1 (SMU).  Moreover, that SMU game was itself instructive.  In it, 185 lbs. QB/SB Malcolm Perry got the start, carrying 33 times for 282 yards (8.5 yards/carry), until he was also carted off with an injury as the 4th quarter started.
This is what Memphis figured out.  Navy’s quarterbacks are its offense.  
The trend started with QB Keenan Reynolds.  You get a special playmaker like that, and of course, you try to feature him.  Then last year, QB Will Worth turned Navy into a quarterback-power team, running huge numbers of snaps off-tackle to the outside, often for big gains.  That trend has continued.  Abey, Perry (as a quarterback), and backup QB Garret Lewis collectively have 47.3% of Navy’s carries.  Including passing attempts, these three together account for fully 53.8% of Navy’s total offense by snap count.  The next closest guys are FBs Chris High and Anthony Gargiulo, who collectively have 187 carries for 877 yards (4.7 yards/carry) or 23% of the offensive snaps.  By way of comparison, Navy is running the Fullback Dive only slightly more often than Army runs the Option Pitch outside.
Though this has been undeniably effective, it also gets guys hurt.  On the season, the Mids are averaging 347.5 yards/game rushing (2nd), 91.2 yards/game passing (128th), and 30.4 points (50th).  That’s great.  But their starting quarterback missed last year’s Army-Navy game with a broken foot after their other starting quarterback had to be carted off with a knee injury in the season opener, and now Abey’s missed a game and been carted off twice more, and Perry’s been carted off the one time that he started at quarterback as well.  The only quarterback who’s been consistently healthy is Lewis, and not coincidentally, he’s the only guy who makes conspicuous use of his fullbacks, too.
As a final note on offense, Will Worth and Keenan Reynolds were both very accurate passers, but Zach Abey is just 30/70 passing for 803 yards (42.9%) with 7 touchdowns        and 7 interceptions.  Navy has thrown more than Army this season, but they haven’t necessarily thrown better.  Going back to last year’s game, Abey is particularly prone to throwing long picks down the middle of the field.

On defense, the Mids have been much better this season.  They currently rank 58th in overall rushing defense, having allowed 1,758 yards and 16 touchdowns on 380 carries (4.63 yards/carry; 159.8 yards/game).  That is slightly better than Army’s 4.8 yards/carry average, though Army’s average is down significantly in its last three games.  The Mids have also given up a lot more points than the Black Knights, allowing 29.2 points/game (85th), though this was against a notably tougher schedule, including college football’s top 2 offenses in Memphis and UCF.  
A look at common opponents gives a better feel for how these defenses compare:
Air Force
Air Force
As noted above, Army’s been much better since it got its best two players back in its secondary, but Navy has been more consistent.  That consistency counts for a lot.
Final note: Navy hasn’t been a lot better than Army on special teams.  On the season, Navy kickers are 8/14 on field goals and just 6/10 from between 20 and 40 yards away.  That ought not inspire a ton of confidence heading into Saturday.
Critical Matchups
Edge Finder (Source:
These are similar teams running similar offenses, but with a different offensive focus.  There’s not an obvious statistical edge, but I think there are some trends that can tell us what to watch.
Army Secondary vs. Navy Receivers.  Since Jeff Monken took over as head coach at Army, his team has played consistently good defense against the triple-option.  Even two years ago, when we saw plebe QB Chris Carter take on Navy hero Keenan Reynolds, Army’s defense played well enough to give the Black Knights a legitimate chance.  This continued last year when, outside of a single long Zack Abey run in the 3rd quarter, Navy’s running game struggled to get any traction.  This year, Army absolutely stoned Air Force in Colorado Springs.  
If you’re Navy, then, you’d probably like to throw at this Army secondary.  The Mids threw last year with some success, especially on outside routes, and considering how many times Army has been burned deep this season, I expect that the passing game will be a big part of their plan.  Army therefore needs to cover downfield to give its rush LBs time to get to the quarterback.  That’s more complicated than it sounds, however, because Navy likes to throw out of the backfield to guys like SB Malcolm Perry and FB Chris High.  High in particular had a big game catching the football last year in Baltimore while Perry is Navy’s most dangerous offensive player.
Army Linebackers vs. Malcolm Perry.  We know that Abey is going to get the ball, and though he’s sure to get some yards, I think Army has a good chance to keep him contained as well.  The X-Factor, then, is Perry, who burned Air Force for a few truly long gains, blowing that game open in its first half.
Army’s bugaboo this season has been letting speed guys get outside contain.  We saw it against Buffalo, Temple, and North Texas, and in North Texas, it cost the team a win.  By comparison, Army kept Air Force’s speed game under control and dominated.  They also covered successfully downfield against Duke, garnering 4 sacks.
If Army can keep contain—in the passing game and on Perry’s outside and misdirection runs—they ought to win.  If not, all Hell will break loose.  The Black Knights may still win a shoot-out, but that’s definitely not the game they would rather play.
Final Thoughts
Rivalry notwithstanding, this is a truly critical game for both teams.  At 8-3, Army has a chance to capture the Commander-in-Chief’s trophy for the first time since 1996, face San Diego State in the Armed Forces Bowl from a position of strength, and continue proving its mettle to a skeptical national football audience.  It can finally take the recruiting advantage from the other academies and build on its success.  A loss, though, would bring all of that into question, making this once glorious season little more than a lost opportunity.

By comparison, Navy sits at 6-5, having lost 5 of their last 6.  If they don’t win, that will mark two epic collapse seasons in a row.  The mystique will be gone, folks will wonder if maybe the move to the AAC wasn’t such a good idea after all, and if they lose the bowl game, too, they’ll have their first losing season in more than a decade.  Given the zero-sum game of academy recruiting, the second-order impacts could be substantial.
The "Pando Commandos" patch, Camp Pando, CO.
As of this writing, Navy is an astounding 3.5-point favorite.  Weird.  ESPN makes the game a push while Football Outsiders favors Army by a little more than 3.  It doesn’t bother me, though, because Army has played substantially better as an underdog.  The over/under currently sits at 47.5.
Coverage starts at 3:00 pm on CBS.
Climb to Glory!
Go Army!  Beat Navy!!!

1 comment:

  1. My buddy Ray commented as follows via Facebook:

    “One nit-picky historian comment - you captioned the patch at the end as ‘Camp Pando.’ It was Camp Hale, located near Pando, CO.”

    Alas, this is what I get for working from memory rather than notes. I even thought about double-checking the name but thought, “Screw it. Who’s gonna notice?”

    Dumb thought, that. Ray works for USMA’s history department & may well have worked on these uniforms.