Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Army Football Preview: vs. Ball State

This past Saturday saw Army drop another heartbreaker in the final moments.  This was the second tough loss in a row, and it torpedoed a season that started with unexpected promise.  Yale had a lot of emotion coming into Saturday’s game, and as we said last week, they are not a team that gives up.  They did exactly what we expected they would do: they made adjustments at halftime and came roaring back from the brink of defeat.  They honored the one hundred year legacy of Yale football in fine fashion, though it was unfortunate that their triumph came at Army’s expense.  Now the Army team needs to rally.  After three weeks on the road, the team comes home to Michie Stadium to face the Ball State Cardinals, out of the MAC West.
Heading into the fifth week of the season, there are two reasons to hope and one cause for concern.  Let’s start with the cause for concern.  Through four games we’ve seen exactly the same thing in every game—Army’s defense collapses in the second half.  In his preview of the 2014 season, SB*Nation contributor Bill Connelly went to some lengths to chronicle the difficulty of building a quality defense at a service academy, especially at Army.  Bottom line: it’s very hard to get big-bodied Defensive Ends (DEs) and Defensive Tackles (DTs) at a school where every student has to run a two-mile PT test every year.  One can account for the issue on offense—at least in part—by running the option and utilizing cut-blocking schemes, but on defense there is no substitute for having a stout interior D-Line that can stop the run and rush the passer.  This almost certainly accounts for at least some of Army’s issues.  Faced with being outmanned and outgunned for four full quarters, Army’s defensive players are wearing down physically, and that lets opposing offenses run wild in the second half.  However, this is not some new phenomenon in service academy football, and we’ve seen Army break down against teams that didn’t outman it physically, most notably Yale.  Indeed, Army had to get a waiver from the NCAA just to play Yale this season without hurting its bowl eligibility.  Clearly there’s more going on than just Army’s defense getting tired, though that is almost certainly a substantial part of the problem.  Rich Ellerson did a lot of good things with Army’s football team, but he was never able to conquer the problem of defense, and ultimately that cost him his job.  Army has been better against the long pass this season than they were under Ellerson, but they’ve surrendered a shitload of yards on the ground.  That’s a hard problem to fix.
Still, there are reasons for hope.  First and foremost, Army was much better at home last year than it was on the road.  This year’s three-game road trip wasn’t kind to the Black Knights, but a return to Michie Stadium may well coincide with better play.  Secondly—and more importantly—we’ve only just begun to see the kinds of changes that new coach Jeff Monken is trying to create in the team schematically.  Through three games, Army is averaging more than 90 yards passing, and while that’s only good for 125th in the NCAA, it’s still a whole Hell of a lot more than Army fans have seen out of the team in quite some time—maybe ever.  It’s definitely given Army’s rushing attack new life.  We also saw some new players start this week, and we saw a change at quarterback, and the offense in general has looked good.  When Monken took over, there was talk of the difficulty of his rebuilding project and of how it was not necessarily going to be a quick-fix.  I don’t want to excuse the loss to Yale—or the loss to Wake Forest, for that matter—but it’s certainly true that we need to give Monken time to build the team in his own image.  It looks like that image is going to be significantly different than what we’ve seen in the past, so that ups the difficulty of the change itself.  In the meantime, we have growing pains.  We can only hope that Monken can somehow stop the bleeding in the second half of games while the rest of his team slowly takes shape.  If Army can stop fumbling late in games, giving opposing offenses short fields when the  game is on the line, that will certainly help.
Speaking statistically, Army is in much the same place this week as it was last week.  9th overall in rushing, 78th in points scored (27.8 points/game), and 111th in points allowed (36.8/game).  That gives us a predicted wins value of .34 or just over 4 wins in a 12-game season.  Four wins would mark a modicum of progress.  However, I don’t know that I see three more wins on the remaining schedule.  Army’s favored by 2.5 over Ball State, but if I was betting on the game, the bet I’d make would be on the over, not on which team was actually going to win.  Of all the bets on offer, the very last one I’d place would be on the Army Team to cover (-2.5).  If Army gets it turned around this weekend, then maybe I’ll believe they can beat UConn in Yankee Stadium.  Meanwhile, Western Kentucky beat Navy this weekend, Air Force is always tough, and Rice won its conference last season.  
Hope springs eternal, but Army needed to beat Yale.
Ball State is in Muncie, Indiana
With all of that said, there is absolutely no reason to think that Ball State is in any better shape than Army.  The Cardinals are also 1-3, having dropped their last game 34-23 to the Toledo Rockets.  In fact, Ball State’s only win this season was against Colgate in the season opener.  The Cardinals are 102nd in passing (193.5 yards/game), 69th in rushing (167.8 yards/game), 106th in points scored (21.5/game), and 47th in points allowed (22.0/game).  That gives them a predicted wins value of .486 or 5.8 games in a 12-game season.  All of which means that Ball State is a run-first team with a decent defense, but their offense hasn’t been scoring a ton of points.  QB Ozzie Mann went 15/27 (55.6%) for 176 yards and two touchdowns against Toledo while RB Jahwan Edwards carried the ball 21 times for 125 yards.  That wasn’t enough to rally the team in the second half to get the win.  This makes Ball State a different kind of team than the others team Army has faced this season, but if Army can’t find a way to stop the run in the second half, it doesn’t necessarily mean Ball State is a better matchup than were the other teams Army saw earlier in the season.
Army players will wear
the 1st Cavalry Division
patch on Saturday.
This weekend’s forecast is for mid-sixty degree temperatures and rain.  I don’t know how much difference that’s going to make to two running teams playing on artificial turf, but it’s liable to mean even less passing than usual.  I believe that Army can start fast, but the team definitely needs to hold onto the ball in the second half, and if Ball State’s quarterback makes a mistake, Army needs to capitalize.  
Speaking personally, I’ll once again be watching this game from the comfort of my living room.  It’s on CBS Sports.  Given the weather forecast, that’s a bit of a lucky break.  We’ll be there for the next two home games, though, against Rice and Air Force, and some of the guys in my office are going with me to see Army beat the Hell out of Connecticut in Yankee Stadium a little later in the year.  Finally, Sally and the kids and I are going to the Fordham game, hopefully with my buddy Jeremy and his family.  This is therefore an excellent week for Army to start playing better.  The team needs to hit its stride with my kids in the stands in the worst way.  That would really help a lot.

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