Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Army Football Preview: Rice

The Black Knights of the Hudson thrilled their fanbase with a strong win against a stout opponent last week.  Army’s win over Temple was the program’s best result since 2010.  Now the team looks to start 2-0 for the first time since 1996.

Army fans, it’s been a long time since you’ve had reason to feel this good about your program.  Enjoy it!

The Army Black Knights
With QB Ahmad Bradshaw at the controls last Friday night, Army ran for 329 yards on 67 carries (4.9 ypc), good for 9th overall in FBS college football.  FB Andy Davidson led the team with 22 carries for 121 yards (5.5 ypc) and 2 touchdowns.  Next came SB Jordan Asberry, who carried 5 times for 53 yards (10.6 ypc), and then Bradshaw himself, who carried 16 times for 53 yards (3.1 ypc) and 1 TD.  As I noted after the game, this was the best thing I saw out there.  Bradshaw wasn’t trying to do it all himself, he spread the ball around to his playmakers and ran the offense.  The triple-option is notoriously quarterback-intensive, so Bradshaw’s growth at the position is a great sign, especially given his demonstrated physical gifts.
4.9 yards/carry is not bad at all on the ground, but when we add in Army’s 2/5 passing game, we bring the offensive average down to 4.7 yards per play.  That’s not as good as the game’s tempo might have made it seem.  Still, Army’s offense scored 28 points, tying for 68th in points-scored in the FBS.  Factor in the defense, currently ranked 30th, and the Black Knights jump to an astounding 23rd in overall team efficiency.  That’s excellent, though you’d like to see at least some production out of the passing game.  WR Edgar Poe is arguable Army’s best offensive player, and yet he had exactly one catch for 11 yards and one pass interference penalty.  Granted, this was a game where Army won by controlling the tempo on the ground.
As of this writing, the Black Knights have moved up to 86th in ESPN’s Football Power Index (FPI), with the over/under currently set at 7.5 wins.  Though we have an extremely small sample size, P-Wins gives us an exceptionally optimistic 90.7% win rate.  This translates to 10.9 wins in a 12-game season, all games being equal.  All things aren’t equal, of course, and I generally wouldn’t put too much stock into a single result, but this one is of interest because Temple was one Army’s tougher opponents.  Still, it’s an open question how much this particular score tells us about future games, especially with Duke, Air Force, Notre Dame and Navy still on the schedule.  Nevertheless, there’s more reason to hope right now than there has been in quite some time.
With all of that said, we should note that Army’s defense matched up well against Temple’s offense.  Temple was a run-first team with a dual-threat quarterback.  Army’s defense is built to stop the run, and it has experience with quarterbacks who carry the ball.  The good news, then, is that Rice has a similar kind of team.
The Rice Owls
Rice got trucked in its opener by a very good Western Kentucky team, 46-14.  This weekend’s game will be the Owls’ second road game to open the season, but at least they won’t have to face another brilliant throwing quarterback.  Hilltopper QB Mike White threw for 517 yards and 3 TDs in week one.  WKU also ran for 97 yards on 30 carries (3.2 ypc).  Rice’s defense has two good players, LBs Alex Lyons and Emmanuel Ellerbee, and they limited the Hilltoppers’ running game, but the rest of the Owls’ defense got well and truly manhandled.
QB Tyler Stehling went 23/38 (60.5%) for 186 yards and 2 interceptions in the opener.  He also led his team in carries with 11 rushes for 85 yards (7.7 ypc) with a long of 22 that went for a touchdown.  Stehling completed passes to eight different receivers, averaging 8.1 yards/play through the air.  That is reasonably impressive.  The two picks hurt, however, and the rest of the Owls’ offense didn’t do much to help their cause.  RB Darik Dilliard was 2nd in rushing with a whopping 19 yards on 9 carries (2.1 ypc), and the Owls overall managed just 4.1 yards/play on offense.  That is not good at all.  
The Owls currently rank 92nd in passing yards, 99th in rushing, 104th in points scored, and 118th in points allowed.  FPI has the Owls as the 119th best team in FBS college football, out of 127 teams total.  P-Wins gives them a 29.6% winning percentage, with an expectation of 3.5 wins in a 12-game season.  Granted, that is after a single game, but still…  Ouch.
This is a more interesting match-up than it appears from just the statistics.  Rice’s defense wasn’t very good against Western Kentucky, but if they did one thing well, it was to limit the Hilltoppers’ running game.  3.2 yards/carry is not by any means world-beating.  If we take out a couple of long runs, what we see is a Hilltopper team that threw all over the place but didn’t get much on the ground.  This despite having 30 carries.  Considering that the Owls were getting absolutely torched through the air, we can safely assume that Rice’s defense was playing back off the line of scrimmage, maximizing coverage.  Thus, if the Owls had a bright spot this weekend, it was their rushing defense.  Yes, they got smoked, but their linebackers weren’t nearly as bad as their team defense was.  If Lyons and Ellerbee can limit Army’s success with the Fullback Dive, this weekend’s game could get very interesting.
After his performance Friday night, Ahmad Bradshaw is in position to take firm control of the starter’s job.  However, given the demonstrated problems in Rice’s secondary, QB Chris Carter is probably a better match-up for this particular game.  I doubt that Army goes away from what worked against Temple, however, so if I’m Rice, I key on the Fullback Dive and the Option Pitch, forcing Bradshaw to carry the ball himself.  Bradshaw is more than capable of pounding the rock—we saw that against UConn last year—but that’s a tough way to win ballgames.  To maximize success, then, the Black Knights will need to find a way to keep their quarterback from getting smashed.  It’s tough to justify taking the ball out of Bradshaw’s hands given the way he played last Friday, but I still think they need to get the ball to Edgar Poe, back Rice’s defense off the line, and run a relatively balanced attack.  Army’s best case forces Rice to commit both its defensive playmakers to stop the inside run, in which case the Option Pitch ought to have a big day.  Failing that, I’d rather see Chris Carter come in and exploit the weaknesses in Rice’s secondary than have Ahmad Bradshaw absorb fifty hits via the Quarterback Keeper.
On the defensive side of the ball, Army needs to contain Tyler Stehling and limit big plays.  Stehling is by far the best player on his team.  If Army’s defense can keep him from escaping the pocket, scrambling for first downs, and scoring on passing plays down the field, I think they have an excellent shot at forcing mistakes and winning this game.  Certainly, they could live with giving up a 60% completion percentage and 200+ yards through the air if they play good Red Zone defense and limit Stehling and the Owls’ running game.  
I suspect that the Owls will have trouble staying on the field if their quarterback can’t run for first downs.  The Owls’ role-players just haven’t demonstrated the ability to support their leader when it counts.
As of this writing, Army is favored by about 10 points.  That’s a big line, but Army is very good against the spread, and if we were just using FPI and home field advantage, we’d actually set the line a bit higher than that.  FPI sets the line at almost 14.  I don’t think Army will win by quite that much, but if Tyler Stehling can’t get outside the pocket, and he also throws a couple of picks, well…  
It could happen.
Personally, I think this is a closer game than it looks like it ought to be.  I think Rice is going to be very focused on stopping the Fullback Dive, forcing Army to make some adjustments.  That will make this game a legitimate test of the team’s offensive flexibility.  It’s a test that I think the Black Knights can pass, but they will again need to be disciplined with the ball, avoid mistakes, and play up to their potential.

Final Notes
This week's broadcast will be on the CBS Sports Network.  Kickoff is at noon.  My buddy Brian and I will be at the game, in Section 16 about a dozen rows up from the field.  We’re looking for a good one.
Go Army!  Beat Rice!!!

No comments:

Post a Comment