Sunday, September 25, 2016

Quick Thoughts: Army Crashes Back to Earth

Ugh.  I don't want to kill this Army team too badly because last night's game was still a better performance than they put in at any point last season, but it was nevertheless extremely disheartening to watch.  At 3-0, Army came in on top of the world, only to revert to form, allowing the problems from yesteryear to rematerialize in a heartbreaking loss to a team they were expected to beat in fine style.  After three wins, I think a lot of fans had forgotten that this is still a very young team.  They have talent, but they are also prone to the kinds of mistakes and streaky performances that are the hallmark of youth in sport.

The problems started right off.  The Black Knights struggled to cover their first kickoff, forcing placekicker Mitchell Howard to come up to make a touchdown saving tackle, and he came away limping.  This brought punter Blake Wilson in for both punts and kicks, and if Army managed to improve its kick coverage, that first injury loss would still turn out to be decisive.
Army got a stop and then marched right down the field to take the lead with an opening touchdown, but after another stop, we began to see Buffalo make adjustments.  The Bulls came into this game 0-2, but they’d had a bye week and therefore an extra week to prepare.  They knew what they had to do, and they were ready to do it.  
The strength of this Buffalo defense is its big interior defensive lineman, and once they stiffened, the Bulls’ linebackers started stringing out the pitch pretty effectively.  This left the offense on QB Ahmad Bradshaw’s shoulders, and as we’ve seen, that’s a tough way to win ballgames, especially once SB Jordan Asberry went out with an injury.  Bradshaw and the fullbacks kept moving the ball, but they never quite established that dominating ground game that we’d seen in other Army games this season.  The passing game might have bailed Army out, but without WR Edgar Poe (hand), Bradshaw never got into a rhythm throwing the ball.  He was sacked on at least one drop back, and he threw high on most of the others.  Edgar’s brother Christian misplayed the one pass that was on target late in the first half, and there we were.  Despite myriad chances and very good-looking offensive statistics, Army took a mere ten point lead into the locker room at halftime.
It was more of the same in the second half.  Army had 21 first downs in this game compared to Buffalo’s 13, and they gained 396 yards rushing, but they were only 4-10 passing, they had 8 penalties for 83 yards, and they fumbled a pitch, giving Buffalo an easy touchdown to the start of the third quarter.  That was enough to keep the Bulls in the game.  
The penalties were the killers.  The Black Knights have been very good on 3rd down all season, but last night they were only 6-17.  This is not because Buffalo’s defense was making stops; it was because 15-yard penalties for chop blocks put Army too far behind schedule to sustain drives on a night when Army's best receiver wasn't in the game. Going 4-10 passing in repeated long-yardage situations made it very hard to keep the offense on the field in the second half.
On defense, I feel like we finally saw somebody challenge this team.  Like many of Army’s players, Buffalo QB Tyree Jackson has talent to spare, but he’s young and streaky.  He came into this game completing less than 50% of his throws, but last night he went 20-31, and that’s with a handful of drops on long passing plays down the field.  The truth is that Buffalo’s receivers got behind the Army defense all night.  That’s a bad sign.  If Jackson’s receivers had played better, he might have been 25-31 for 350 yards and three touchdowns.  Buffalo couldn’t quite connect on a lot of those deep throws, however, so Army was able to hang around the same as Buffalo.  Against a team like Duke or Notre Dame, this issue with the secondary could lead to some real problems.
It was bad enough as it was.  In past years, Army has been wholly unable to stop pass-catching tight ends, and that was the case again last night.  Army’s pass rush was totally ineffective late, and once Jackson got into a rhythm throwing the ball, he and his offense were unstoppable.  Buffalo mixed in some running plays and some read-option looks, and Army’s defense flat couldn’t get a stop.  Even when they were in the right positions, Jackson's size was enough to get him into the end zone.  The Bulls scored 14 unanswered points in the fourth quarter, tying the game.  There was no question that they were going to win if this game went to overtime.
After a good return on the ensuing kickoff, Army got the ball with a little more than two minutes remaining.  I wanted the Black Knights to hurry, but I think Coach Monken was more concerned with milking the clock.  I get why he didn't want to give the ball back to Buffalo.  In any event, Army drove down the field, but they never took a shot at the end zone, preferring instead to kick a chip shot field goal to win the game.  This would have been the right strategy with K Mitchell Howard, but Wilson missed the lay-up, and there you have it.  Another chop block and another missed field goal killed Army’s hopes in overtime.
It appears that the reports of this team being a Top 25 program have been greatly exaggerated.
Army heads into a bye this week before traveling to Duke to take on the 2-2 Blue Devils who, oh by the way, just beat Notre Dame in their own building.  After a hot start, it looks like Army has a very good chance of going 3-2 to open the year after all, and if that’s better than it might have been, it’s still liable to lead to a dogfight to get into the postseason.  Assuming this team can rediscover its focus, they ought to beat Lafayette, North Texas, and Morgan State at home, but only two of those three will count towards bowl eligibility.  Wake Forest looks very tough this year, so bottom line, if Army can’t find a way to beat either Navy or Air Force, this will turn out to be another year of squandered promise.  I think I speak for everyone when I say that we've seen entirely too many of those.
It’s concerning.  First, because of the way this defense performed.  The Black Knights have a very young secondary, and that showed up big time last night.  As we’ve said many, many times here in the past, if Army can’t find a way to shut down tight ends across the middle of the field, they’re not going to stop anybody.  Buffalo moved the ball at will late in last night’s game, and the Bulls have nowhere near the best offense that Army has left to face.  The Black Knights got good pressure against Temple, Rice, and UTEP, but they couldn't get to Buffalo's quarterback, and their young corners aren't playing consistently enough to stop some of the better passing attacks they're going to face.
The second issue is that Army had a tendency last season to play to the level of its competition.  They played Navy and Rutgers tough, and they almost beat Penn State on the road, but they also dropped imminently winnable games to Fordham, Wake Forest, and UConn, and if it wasn’t for a late game-saving catch by Edgar Poe, they might’ve lost to Bucknell as well.  That’s a problem because this team has a handful of tough road games ahead, and they have to face Air Force and Navy teams that want to destroy them in the kinds of statement games that can affect recruiting for years to come.  Bottom line, Army needs to carry confidence and solid execution into those games, and getting caught in a trap game in Buffalo where a lot of the old problems suddenly rematerialized doesn’t inspire confidence.

I want to believe, and as we said earlier in the week, it’s not an amazing coincidence that this young team lost focus and laid an egg on the road.  It’s the way they lost focus that’s concerning.  This is still not a team with a lot of margin for error.  They had a few penalties, a single dropped pitch, a bad instance of kick coverage, and a missed field goal in regulation.  Otherwise, they gained almost 400 yards rushing and 21 first downs.  Those few mistakes were enough to cost them the game, even against the 0-2 Buffalo Bulls.

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