Saturday, April 30, 2016

Thoughts on the Black & Gold Game

The girls and I just got back from Army's Spring Scrimmage, and as long as I've got a few minutes, I'd like to jot down my thoughts before I forget what I saw.  I should note that we only stayed through three quarters.  I wanted to watch Ahmad Bradshaw's last possession, but we just didn't have time.  The girls are attending the local junior high school production of Beauty and the Beast, so we had to leave early to give everyone a chance to decompress and eat before heading back out.

We left the house a little after nine, which I thought would be plenty early.  With no traffic, I live about seventy-five minutes from the Academy.  Unfortunately for us, however, the NY State Department of Transportation failed to deconflict their Tappan Zee Bridge roadwork with Army's Athletic Department, resulting in a massive traffic jam that significantly delayed us getting the stadium.  What's worse is that everyone was a little cranky by the time we got there.  This was not a particularly auspicious start to an afternoon with two girls who really only understand the very basics of football.

There were a ton of people at the spring game.  Hundreds more than I expected, at least.  Directions from the Academy Ticket Office had us come in through Stony Lonesome Gate and park in A Lot, directly above the stadium.  However, by the time we got there, A Lot was pretty much full, and several of the other lots were filling fast.  We were very lucky that we decided to take my car--the super-compact Beat Navy-Mobile.  If we'd been in Sally's Honda Pilot, I don't think we'd have found a parking space in time to hear Coach Monken's pre-game pep-talk to season ticket holders.

The back side of Michie Stadium and the Kimsey Club as view from the
Holledar Center's steps.

Not that Coach Monken said much.  He talked a little about the development of Army's secondary and noted because of a question that he thought Safety Xavier Moss was probably the fastest guy on Army's roster.  Beyond that, he knows that he has a tough opening game against Temple, and he's excited to have a squad full of yearlings next year because that ought to beat the fire out of the squad full of plebes he had in 2015.  He said that because of injuries something like twenty-five plebes played in the last two games last season, against Rutgers and Navy, and that they weren't necessarily the same twenty-five in both games.  Compared to that, he has real experience on his team heading into 2016, which ought to count for quite a lot.

Left unsaid: this is still a very young team.

Monken spoke for a half hour, and then we grabbed some freshly grilled hamburgers, sat on the steps, and ate with the rest of the diehards.  As a '95 grad, I usually feel old at Academy stuff--I graduated more than twenty years ago--but it turns out that I'm young to the point of adolescence by the standards of Army season ticket holders.  There were quite a few guys in attendance who looked like they might've graduated in time to do a tour in Vietnam.  Most of the guys were probably mid- to late-70s grads... That made the group a very different mix than I'm used to seeing at my local West Point Society of Connecticut functions.

To be fair, though, they're a bunch of grizzled old bastards.  Successful, confident, and aggressively healthy despite being a more than a few years removed from the prime of their service.  I saw at least a dozen guys who were still wearing Ranger Rolls in their hats at least two score years past their last patrol.  It was inspiring, truth be told.

Halftime at Michie Stadium during the Black & Gold Game.
The Defense wore white.
Hannah and Emma mugging at halftime.
The girls and I started towards the stadium around twelve-forty with the game itself scheduled for a one o'clock start.  We sat in the section that's normally reserved for the Corps, maybe ten rows off the field.  The team came out, we sang the anthem, and then it was time to play.

The game was more scrimmage than true Black/Gold Game.  It was Offense (Black) vs. Defense (Gold, wearing white uniforms), with the ones working against the ones, the twos against the twos, and the threes against the threes.  Coach Monken put together a scoring system, but I doubt anyone was paying attention.  Mostly, folks came to see Army win, which was a little more obvious via the efforts of the offense.  Conveniently, the offense wore home jerseys.

I'll say here that I think rising yearling Chris Carter ought to get the start at quarterback.  Ahmad Bradshaw played most of the game with the ones, but to me he still looks a little hesitant with the ball.  He's a good runner in space, and he's got a strong arm when he gets his feet set and knows where he's going with the football.  Still, his best attributes were not on display in this scrimmage.

Bradshaw runs runs hard, and he can break tackles, but his best play is probably the follow-play, where he fakes the dive to the fullback and then follows through the hole.  For obvious reasons, Coach Monken wasn't going to pound his quarterbacks between the tackles in a scrimmage, but that takes away Bradshaw's best looks.  Bradshaw threw one good, hard out to a wide receiver, and he ran one excellent draw play that I think was intended to be a throw but wound up with him running in space in the middle of the field through broken tackles.  That play was a 3rd-and-13, and he picked up the first down using his sheer size and speed.  He also ran a screen that shocked the defense and picked up big yardage.  Mostly though, the offense struggled when he was on the field because the defense crowded the line of scrimmage in the middle, and he can never seem to get outside with the kind of authority to make the pitch play look truly dynamic.  He has the raw speed, but it looks like he takes an extra step before heading outside, and tacklers are there by the time he gets moving.

By comparison, Carter's more multiple skill set puts the defense in truly tough spots.  The dive opens up with Carter under center because he has a quick release with his throws, making him deadly in the downfield passing game.  He hit Christian Poe for a 65-yard touchdown, and trust me, there was plenty more where that came from.  The threat of the pass then also opens up the pitch and even the follow-play, and the defense has no choice but to back off and play less aggressively.  That gives him a half-step, and he uses it to good effect.

With Carter under center, the offense is truly dynamic.  He may not break tackles the way that Bradshaw does, but he always seems to have more running room.  Plus, he hits wide receivers in stride as a matter of course.  When was the last time you saw that from an Army quarterback?

Army's new Lacrosse Center is adjacent to the stadium. 
Selfie overlooking Lusk Reservoir with Emma...
...and Hannah.
On the defensive side of the ball, linebackers Jeremy Timpf and Andrew King are straight run-stoppers.  When they were in the game, the fullback runs were a serious challenge.  This year's offense didn't--ever--look like the exercise in futility that we saw in last year's summer scrimmage, but with Timpf and King in the game, it was still very hard for the ones to maintain any serious momentum.  I didn't see any three-and-outs from the offense, but there were quite a few drives under Bradshaw that gained exactly one first down and a couple that gained exactly two.

That said, I saw zero fumbled snaps.  There were a few interceptions, but the only fumble came on an abysmal pitch in traffic from #3 quarterback Matt Kaufman.  That by itself represents monstrous improvement.

Safety Xavier Moss and cornerback Brandon Jackson also played well.  Jackson made perhaps the best play of the game.  Bradshaw took a snap from under center, rolled left and threw a high ball to #1 wide receiver Edgar Poe on the left sideline with Jackson in one-on-one coverage.  I thought for sure that this was going to go for a touchdown, but Jackson undercut the route and out-jumped the much taller Poe, coming down with the interception with two hands firmly on the ball.  Bradshaw made the right read and a decent throw--you can't blame your quarterback for throwing a jump-ball to his tallest receiver in one-on-one coverage on the outside--but Jackson simply made the better play.  It was very impressive.

Overall the offense was very vanilla.  Quarterbacks threw a lot by design, but they ran very little, and they didn't pitch more than twice all game.  At least 60% of the offensive snaps were fullback runs, generally going for about four yards.  That's not bad, and in fact, almost the entire third quarter was run with Kaufman handing off a steady stream of fullback dives and belly-plays that must have taken nine full minutes off the clock.  Compared to last year's offensive futility, this was outstanding.  However, that drive in particular took the air out of the stadium, and we left shortly after Kaufman got his team within field goal range.  I don't fault the play-calling--at all--but it was ugly to watch.

Final thought: Army's kicking game still needs work.  The team had some kickoffs go into the end zone in the second half, but the first half saw a lot of imminently returnable kicks and no booming punts.  On the other side, Army's return game didn't do much, and returners muffed several punts.  This only led to disaster once, but they'll need to get it cleaned up before the actual season starts.

That's all I've got.

Go Army!  Beat Navy!!!

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