Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Army Football Preview: Fordham

This is it, Army fans.  There are one and a butt days until Army beats Fordham at Michie Stadium in football.  Finally, the wait is over, and we can start to get some answers.  Although I won’t be at this week’s game personally, I find myself excited and cautiously optimistic about the 2015 iteration of the Army football team.
How good can this team be?  This is the week we start to find out.

The Black Knights of Army
This is not an easy game to preview.  There are no stats to go on, no trends yet to track, and this year’s Army team returns few starters, both on offense and defense.  Based on that alone, I’ve seen several previews calling this another rebuilding year for Army.  That’s probably a fair assessment.  
And yet, there are reasons to hope.  
Let’s start with the secondary.  By adding Xavier Moss at safety, Army has immediately improved its biggest position of need from 2014.  It would be nice to have both star cornerbacks Chris Carnegie and Josh Jenkins in the secondary as well, but Jenkins was injured off-the-field during the summer, so for now Carnegie is back there with Steven Johnson.  The other safety, Rhyan England, also returns from last year, so the secondary at least has a mix of veteran leadership and raw athletic talent.  Last year’s safety play left a lot to be desired, and against a larger, more physical team, that could potentially be an issue again.  Against Fordham, I think Army has the horses to hang tough.
The defensive front seven returns both inside linebackers Andrew King and Jeremy Timpf, arguably the best players on the entire team.  The D-Line is mostly new, but it’s stouter, and based on what I saw at the first summer scrimmage, it looks like a wholly more talented group than it was last year.  This leaves Army needing speed and power at rush linebacker.  Last year’s Army team struggled mightily to mount a pass rush.  Along with the play of the safeties, the rush linebackers will be something to watch all season long.  Fordham mounts a potent passing attack, but they won’t out-mass Army’s players.  That makes this an excellent test of the top-end potential of Army’s ability to bring pressure.  Army’s front needs to seize the opportunity and make this a long day for the Rams.
The bigger questions are on offense.  As of this writing, I am assuming that Ahmad Bradshaw is starting at quarterback for Army.  Bradshaw has blazing speed, and Army’s O-Line returns more experience than any other position group on the team.  The potential for big plays is there.  Unfortunately, almost all of the skill position players are relatively untested.  Fullbacks Matt Giachinta and Aaron Kemper both played sparingly last year, and I don’t think I’m doing either a disservice to say that no matter how well they play, it will be hard to erase the memory of graduated star Larry Dixon.  Similarly, Army has some speed in tailbacks John Trainor and Jordan Asberry, but Asberry is a plebe, and if Trainor played any last season, I can’t remember it.  Meanwhile, receiver Edgar Poe is probably at least as talented as anyone Army has fielded at wideout in recent years, but how much can he do with an untested yearling quarterback in the triple-option offense?  I take nothing away from the guy, but if he catches four balls against Fordham, it will be a miracle.
The good news is that Army’s offense ought to be highly competitive against Fordham’s defense.  As I said, Fordham is similarly sized, and Army moved the ball well against them last year.  If the offensive line plays better, it’s hard to imagine that this won’t be the case again.  Army’s offense has talent.  Now it needs experience and confidence.  In that regard, this game provides an ideal first opponent, though as always, mistakes will absolutely kill Army before the team even has a chance to show how much it has improved.
The Fordham Rams
Yes, Fordham is a similarly sized team to Army, but this does not mean that they cannot win this game.  They most certainly can.  Army dropped inexplicably bad games to FCS Yale and bottom-ranked Kent State last year, and although the Army team beat Fordham, that game was close through the first half.  
Fordham is a proud program with a history of success.  The Rams finished 11-3 in 2014, including an FCS playoff win over Sacred Heart.  They won the Patriot League for the first time since 2007 with a perfect 6-0 record in league play.  That made them the first team to go 6-0 in the Patriot league since 2003, and they are expected to repeat as Patriot League champions.  The Rams will start a new quarterback this year, it’s true, but they have a historically potent passing attack, and if Army doesn’t get after whoever winds up starting for Fordham, that man is liable to have a big day.  Wake Forest started a new quarterback last year against Army, and the Black Knights made him look like a world-beater.  This year’s Army team needs to do better, or it’s going to have a long day.
What to Watch?
There are 128 teams in the college Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS).  As of this writing, ESPN has Army at 124th while SB*Nation has Army at 118th.  The good news is that SB*Nation’s rankings have the Army team two slots ahead of next week’s opponent, UConn.  That doesn’t matter much for us now, though.  Meanwhile, Fordham is a top tier Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) team, currently favored to win its conference and advance for the umpteenth year in a row to the FCS playoffs.  Based solely on that, these teams look evenly matched.
Offense was the strength of last year’s Army team.  Army needed to score points in bunches if it wanted to survive its opponents’ inevitable fourth quarter rallies.  This year’s team looks much improved on defense, but that’s scary because we’ve seen Army breakdown late in games so many times.  Can Army’s defense really play better?  Can they play hard for four full quarters of a game?
Similarly, Army’s offense absolutely killed itself at times last year—and over other course of the last half-decade.  A botched pitch at Wake Forest cost them that game, and then the hangover carried on for half the season.  Army missed a late field goal to lose at Yale the very next week, and after that thing got rough.  It’s hard to believe that a wholly new group of skill position players is going to improve on attention to detail, but if the offensive line plays better, that could actually happen.  Better teams got so much penetration in the center last season that it caused absolute chaos.  This is not conducive to cool-headed play.  With last season’s defense, this left the Black Knights with little in the way of margin of error.  Army needed to play precise, mistake-free football, and it didn’t much happen.
Like so many games last season, I expect that this year’s first game will turn on mistakes.  Army’s defense needs to force Fordham’s new quarterback to make mistakes, and its secondary needs to capitalize.  Similarly, Army has plenty of talent on offense.  It needs disciplined play.  The speed will be there, and I don’t think Army’s going to get beat by Fordham on power.  If the offense can hold the ball and not turn it over, they have an excellent shot at winning this game.  However, if Bradshaw throws an interception or can’t pitch reliably, Fordham’s going to use this game to springboard to a second straight Patriot League Championship.
One way or another, we ought to learn a lot on Friday.
A member of the Parachute Team coming in before last year's game against Fordham.
Final Thoughts
Friday’s game kicks off at 7 pm.  CBS Sports is covering the game live, or you can find it on WABC AM 770 if you live locally.  Sirius XM satellite radio also usually carries Army games, and this is undoubtedly how I’ll following it since my family and I won’t be around on Friday.
If you’re wondering, my classmate Katie is using my tickets this week to take her dad to West Point.  Hopefully, they’ll have a great time and watch the team score its first win of the season.

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