Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Army Football Preview: at Buffalo

In my preseason preview, I broke Army Football’s season down into thirds.  At the time, I thought Army would go either 2-3 or 3-2, with an eye towards finishing this first five-game stretch above .500.  This, I thought, would set the team up for a potential seven-win season and a bowl berth, a legitimate goal given last year’s performance, the team’s maturation, and the current schedule.  It had been clear for some time that Army was an improved program.  We had no way of knowing just how much the team had improved, however, until they started playing games.

Fast-forward to mid-September, and Army hasn’t just improved, it’s turned expectations upside down.  With three games in the books, the Black Knights of the Hudson already have more wins than they had all last season.  The over/under on wins has gone from six to something like nine—or even ten!  The team is playing with a level of confidence and precision that we haven’t seen in decades.  It’s truly been a joy to behold.
The Black Knights had so many close calls last year, even against legitimate powerhouse squads, and this was in a year in which literally half the players were plebes.  They put the ball on the turf at a record pace but still managed to keep most games tight, moving the ball but also giving it away every time we thought victory might be within their grasp.  It was maddening.  Army fans haven’t had much to cheer about since I was a young lieutenant stationed at Fort Stewart, Georgia, a time when many of today’s cadets hadn’t yet been born.  These kids don’t remember putting Navy away five years in a row, watching their kicker choke first wide right and then wide left in successive years in the early 1990s.  For some of them, the words, “There is no substitute for victory!” are merely a nice slogan.  They’ve never experienced Army-Navy as—legitimately—the greatest rivalry in college sports.
At the very least, that shit looks like it is about to change.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised.   The defense started coming around last season, but this year the offense has also come around, eliminating mistakes and getting good push all along the offensive line.  For a team that was repeatedly close despite its mistakes, the elimination of turnovers has been a revelation.  Army goes on the road to Buffalo this week, and as long as they can stay focused on offense and continue to take care of the ball, I feel confident that we’ll see more of what we’ve already seen.
The Army Black Knights
Army Football is kicking ass.  They average a whopping 367.7 yards/game rushing, good for 2nd in FBS college football.  That’s 1,103 yards on 209 carries, a very respectably 5.3 yards/carry.  The Black Knights are only throwing for 85.0 yards/game (127th), but Army quarterbacks have been very accurate.  They are 13/19 (68.4%) for 255 yards, an average of 13.4 yards/pass to nine different receivers.  The vast majority of those passes have come on game-changing plays.
To put this another way, there’s a whole separate offensive scheme here that Army isn’t running because they simply haven’t had to.  Yes, Army is very good on the ground.  The Fullback Dive is crushing defenses, and that opens up the rest of the offense.  However, Army is also completing passes at a near-70% completion rate (!), which ought to scare the Hell out of anyone who thinks that this team only ever runs the football.  A more accurate read says that although Army’s offensive line isn’t built to pass protect, it has quarterbacks who are very good throwing on the move outside the pocket.  We saw this repeatedly against UTEP, when QBs Chris Carter and Malik McGue got into space and used an outside run/pass/pitch option.  Carter ran for 100 yards and a touchdown and threw two nice passes for big gains.  McGue threw twice for 63 yards and a touchdown and pitched once for a big gain.  However, reality lately has been that QB Ahmad Bradshaw and the fullbacks are moving the ball so well that Carter and the team’s more aerial offensive components haven’t been able to earn playing time.  This is a good problem to have, but it also explains why Army’s offense didn’t let up when Bradshaw and the “first team” came out last Saturday night.

Army is averaging 41.7 points/game and giving up less than 14, good for 28th and 16th respectively.  This is—obviously—winning football.  It’s a little harder to quantify the defense’s performance with statistics, but they held the nation’s second-leading rusher to less than 70 yards just last Saturday night in a high altitude stadium.  That was enough to rip the wheels completely off of UTEP’s offense.

I've been putting these statistics out on Twitter every week: @Dan_T_Head.
Click to enlarge.
The Buffalo Bulls
The Buffalo Bulls are 0-2, having dropped their first two games to FCS Albany and Nevada.  QB Tyree Jackson is 21/47 (44.7%) for 255 yards, 2 TDs, and 1 INT.  He has also rushed 18 times for 147 yards (8.2 yards/carry).  RB Jordan Johnson appears to be the Bulls’ biggest difference-maker on offense, having carried 40 times for 201 yards, a very respectable 5.0 yards/carry.  Buffalo’s rushing attack is averaging 228.5 yards/game, good for 29th in the FBS.  Meanwhile, Jackson has thrown to eight different receivers with WR Mason Schreck their leading pass catcher.  Schreck has caught 6 passes for 89 yards and a TD.
The Bulls’ problem, then, has come on defense.  They’ve given up an average of 30 points/game to Albany and Nevada, neither of which is an offensive powerhouse.  Indeed, Albany was supposed to be the Bulls’ FCS “tune-up” game but then spoiled the party, putting the Bulls down 22-16.
It’s tough to win that way.  ESPN’s Football Power Index (FPI) currently has the Bulls at 17.6 points worse than an “average” team, 124th of 128 teams in FBS college football.
Buffalo looks a lot like Rice, only their offense runs through the running back rather than through a playmaking fifth year transfer quarterback.  It’s also worth mentioning, perhaps, that the Bulls have struggled to recruit of late, being stuck in the same state—and in the same general geographic area—as Syracuse, with Rutgers relatively nearby.  New York is a big state, but it’s not exactly high school football’s heartland.  
Having already bottled up UTEP’s Aaron Jones, I expect Army will do the same with Jordan Johnson.  Tyree Jackson will then have to find a way to win with his arm, and honestly, I don’t think he has the resume.  Similarly, Nevada is currently ranked 93rd in the FPI, and they hung thirty-eight on Buffalo.  Failing a return of Army’s attention-to-detail fumbling like we saw repeatedly last year, I expect Army to continue its offensive output, running another triple-option clinic in their opponent’s house.
As of this writing, Army is favored by 15.5 points.  FPI actually puts the expectation at 17.2.  Buffalo is coming off of a bye week, so perhaps that will make a difference.  Bye week notwithstanding, however, I still believe Army finds a way to win.

Final Thoughts
Buffalo moved kickoff to 7 pm last week, which I find personally annoying.  The game is on ESPN 3, so it ought to stream a little better than last week’s broadcast on the American Sports Network did.  I had to Chromecast last week’s game through a browser tab, and even at minimal resolution, it was jerky and crashed repeatedly as the game wore on.  ESPN 3 is Chromecast-ready, thank God, so it streams beautifully.  I guess that’s the one upside of having a mega-corporation controlling most college sports broadcast rights.  As long as I can see the game, I suppose I’m happy.
You can also follow Army on SiriusXM satellite radio, which is how I followed the first half last week, using the app on my phone from our table at the Housatonic Boat Club.  I wish the satellite radio stream and the video feed were sync’ed, so I could listen to Army Football Radio while watching the game, but alas, Sirius is always on a slight delay.  What can you do?
Regardless, it ought to be a fun game this weekend.
Go Army!  Beat Buffalo!!!

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