Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Army Football Preview: at Air Force

When last we left the Army Black Knights, they were limping out of Rice University stadium after having suffered the latest in a series of crushing defeats in winnable football games.  The team overcame a 14 point deficit in a driving rainstorm, tied the score late at 31-all, and then gave up a truly egregious last-second touchdown to allow the Owls to get back in front, 38-31.  Since then, Army’s had a bye week, Sprint Football beat Navy, went undefeated, and won the Sprint Football College Championship, and this week’s opponent, Air Force, went to Hawaii and laid the smackdown on the Rainbow Warriors in the own building.  Now the Black Knights have to travel to Colorado to face the Falcons in their own nest.  
This will not be an easy task.

The Army Black Knights
The good news is that Army returns its starting quarterback this week after a bye.  The bad news is that he’s not proven to be overly durable in his first season as Army’s starter, to the point where it’s hard to say that he’s necessarily Army’s best chance to win this week.  Ahmad Bradshaw is the best athlete that Army has at quarterback, and that’s important in a triple-option offense, but he’s only a yearling, and with all of the injuries he’s suffered, he’s not gained nearly as much in-game experience as we might’ve hoped he would.  Bradshaw is still Army’s 3rd leading rusher, though, and he certainly has talent, but he’s been out of as many games as he’s been in, and he’s had trouble staying on the field even when he’s managed to suit up and start.  Behind him, AJ Schurr has played reasonably well, but Schurr doesn’t have the kind of breakaway speed that Bradshaw has, and he has a tendency to throw unfortunate passes into downfield coverage.  That resulted in multiple interceptions against Bucknell and has at no point looked particularly good this season.
To be honest, it’s hard to be optimistic.  As of this writing, Army is 2-6, having dropped a handful of winnable games, some in relatively decisive fashion.  For example, Army lost by five to UConn, but the game was only really close at the end and would have needed something like a miracle to actually produce a victory.  The same could be said of the games against Rice and Penn State.  Even Fordham beat Army pretty soundly, though the score doesn’t look quite as bad as it could.  True, Army has improved in some ways over last season, but that is extremely unlikely to show in its final record, and it’s getting hard to keep saying, “Wait until next year.”  The team is recruiting better, and the defense is demonstrably improved, but we still have all of two wins and a mere 9.3% chance of walking out of Colorado Springs with a win this weekend if ESPN is to be believed.  That’s not enough to give Army fans anything to brag about.
Army is currently rushing for 274.1 yards/game (7th) and passing for 73.6 (126th), giving the offense an average of 24 points/game.  To be honest, that’s not great.  When Army can get the Fullback Dive going inside, they’ve moved the ball, but they still have a tendency to put it on the turf—even when playing well.  This has put the Black Knights’ defense in too many holes, as has their inability to cover receivers over the middle of the field on 3rd-and-long.  Army has given up an average of 28.5 points/game (76th); that’s a lot of points.  Based solely on points for and against (i.e. p[wins]), Army ought to win 40.3% of the time, but the breaks haven’t gone their way much more than half that often.  ESPN projects the team finishing at 3-9, and considering how they started, that would represent a certain amount of success going forward.  In the real world, though, 3-9 isn’t going to get folks overly excited.
The Air Force Falcons
Unlike the Black Knights, Air Force is a fun team to watch.  They run an aerial version of the triple-option that makes it look like a legitimately dynamic offense.  They still only throw for an average of 98.8 yards/game (125th), but those throws set up enough out-routes and variability to keep defenses honest.  Where Army only ever tries to drive the ball down the field—with decidedly mixed results—Air Force has an actual short passing game, and it changes the dynamic of what they do tremendously.  They also have the kind of rushing attack that a triple-option team ought to have, gaining 353.4 yards/game (2nd).  That’s pretty damned good.
This is NOT a chickenhawk.
The Falcons laid an egg against Navy, but other than that, this is a team that has done pretty well for itself.  They’ve scored 286 points while giving up just 167, for a p(wins) expectation of 78.2% or 9.4 wins in a 12-game season.  They’re not likely to win nine games, but they might come close.  Air Force beat Morgan State, San Jose State, Wyoming, Fresno State, and Hawaii with Army, Utah State, Boise State, and New Mexico left on their schedule.  Assuming they win this weekend, the Zoomies have every chance to win eight games and make a mark in the Mountain West.  Moreover, they need only one win to achieve bowl eligibility with four left to play.  That ain’t bad.
What to Watch
Army coach Jeff Monken runs a special “Academy” practice session routinely as a way to emphasize playing against Air Force and Navy.  Army is also coming off of a bye.  If that bye is enough to get some offensive linemen back and thereby create holes in the middle for the Fullback Dive, then maybe this game has some sizzle.  Monken’s emphasis on inter-Academy play ought to mean that Army’s defense is prepared.  But is its offense?  
Fullbacks Aaron Kemper and Matt Giachianta will need to find running room for Army to have any chance at all in this game.  With them gaining yards, Ahmad Bradshaw might finally get loose and show what he can really do.  That’s how Army wins.  However, if Army’s Fullback Dive goes nowhere, then Air Force will run-blitz Bradshaw all day, and this will be yet another disaster.  Army fans may be used to disasters, but they’re never fun to watch.

Final Thoughts
Kickoff is at 3:30 on ESPNU and online at ESPN3.  Army players will be wearing the 4th Infantry Division patch.

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