Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Army Football Preview: Air Force

It’s Air Force Week!
Yes, this week cadets from the nation’s #3 service academy travel to Michie Stadium to take on the Army Black Knights.  
Henry "Hap" Arnold, a West Pointer,
was the first General of the Air Force.
Though they are perhaps best-known in the modern era for sending remote-controlled airplanes into combat in support of America’s valiant ground forces, the United States Air Force has a distinguished history.  Men such as Henry “Hap” Arnold and Benjamin O. Davis Jr., both West Point graduates, led this nation’s air forces through the early days of American Combat Aviation, establishing a standard of excellence that the U.S. Air Force Academy today struggles to uphold.  More recently, the Air Force has deigned to fly the A-10 Warthog in actual close air support missions against real live foes despite the fact that Air Force leadership stands squarely against the airframe on account of its lack of speed and overall “sexiness”.  Indeed, the Air Force has shown time and again that it will meet any challenge presented, so long as there’s air conditioning.  U.S. News and Forbes rarely agree on how colleges should be ranked, but both magazines put the cadets of Air Force solidly into the bronze in the military academy competition, relatively closely behind only the cadets of Army and the midshipmen of Navy.  Indeed, Air Force leads the way in both sexual harassment claims and the use of internal secret police.
Bravo Air Force!  Well done!

The Army Black Knights
As we head into the final third of the season, I think it’s fair to say that Army has the most talented team it’s had in decades, but also one of the most inconsistent.  When this team is on, they crush people.  Temple is now 6-3, but Army ran right at the Owls’ highly respected defense, steamrolling them in the season opener.  Wake Forest has one of the best teams in the ACC, and one of the best rushing defenses in particular, but Army manhandled them in the fourth quarter last week, going up by eleven late in a game that the Demon Deacons absolutely needed to win.  Against that, though, we saw Army’s seven turnover performance against North Texas two weeks ago and their horrendous play in Buffalo, where they still should have won save for a missed chip-shot field goal on the last play in regulation.  These Black Knights may have talent, but with more than 75 yearlings and 59 plebes, they are very young.  They win games, sure, but they are also prone to mistakes.  This marks a big step forward, but it also leaves substantial room for improvement.
The good news is that Army is playing consistent defense, and defense can keep you in games even when everything else is going awry.  We saw this last week at Wake Forest, and I expect we’ll see it again before this season is over.  As of this writing, Army is 3rd in the FBS in total defense, 9th in points allowed, and 8th in interceptions with 12.  The Black Knights are giving up an average of just 163.0 yards passing, 103.8 yards rushing, and 16.5 points per game.  Though they’ve been excellent against the run since last season, this season has seen vastly improved quarterback pressure, and as of last week, an improved secondary.  Considering their youth at cornerback, those guys have played extremely well.
That’s good because Army’s offense has been maddening at times.  Yes, they have the nation’s #2 rushing attack, averaging a whopping 342.1 yards/game on the ground.  However, they also have the bottom-ranked passing attack, with 91.5 yards/game through the air, and—more importantly—a quarterback who’s gone 28/62 (45.2%) for just 2 TDs against 6 INTs.  To put that another way, QB Ahmad Bradshaw is a 40% passer to everyone who’s not WR Edgar Poe.  Poe, however, is an exceptional receiver, the only one on the entire team who can consistently adjust to the ball in the air and fight through coverage to come down with the catch.  WR Jeff Ejekam has played well when called upon, and SBs Jordan Asberry and Joe Walker both catch pretty well out of the backfield, but Poe is the team’s difference-maker, especially when Army struggles on the ground.  Army needs to be able to throw occasionally to open up the Fullback Dive, and with Poe in the lineup, they can.  Without him, they’ve struggled to complete passes and given up multi-interception games.

Simple statistical comparison.  Click to enlarge.
Special teams has been the true issue for this year’s Black Knights.  Army is only 50% kicking field goals this year, and their starting kicker, Mitchell Howard, has been out since a touchdown-saving tackle on a kickoff return at Buffalo.  Army hasn’t even attempted a long field goal, but the inability to reliably make chip-shots has cost them several times.
The Air Force Falcons
The Blue Falcons!
The Falcons are having a similar kind of season to Army.  They started hot, with wins over Georgia State, Utah State, and Navy but then dropped three winnable games in a row.  The loss at home to 105th-ranked Hawaii marked a nadir of futility that the Zoomies haven’t seen in quite some time.  They bounced back last week late to overcome a halftime deficit against 117th-ranked Fresno State (1-8), but their win over Navy notwithstanding, this year’s Air Force team is just not as good as they usually are.  
Like Army, Air Force has been getting it done predominantly on the ground.  That’s always been true, of course, but it’s even more true than usual in 2016.  The Zoomies rank 6th in total rushing yards with 295.9 yards/game and 118th in passing with 152.9 yards/game.  Air Force has rushed 504 times for 2,367 yards (4.7 yards/carry).  By comparison, Army has exactly the same number of carries for 2,737 yards (5.4 yards/carry).  Air Force’s top receiver is Jalen Robinette, with 24 catches for 622 yards and 4 TDs.  That’s four times more catches than Air Force’s second-leading receiver, and if you watched the Navy game, you already know that it was Robinette who won that game with a few long receptions in the second half.  The Zoomies are scoring slightly more points than Army--33.3, good for 42nd in the FBS--but they’ve given up more points as well.  25.5 points-allowed/game ties them for 48th.  Still, Air Force has been excellent against the run, allowing just 110.8 yards/game--about the same number as Army.  What’s different is that Air Force has given up a lot more yards through the air (239.4 yards/game) and less stout in the red zone.
Starting QB Nate Romine hurt his ankle last week against Fresno State, and although I expect him to play, his backup Arion Worthman provided a real spark coming off the bench.  To date, Romine has carried 95 times for 296 yards (2.9 yards/carry) and gone 45/108 throwing (41.7%) with 10 TDs and 4 interceptions.  By contrast, Worthman carried 20 times just last week for 102 yards (5.1 yards/carry) and 2 TDs.  He threw just once, also for a touchdown.  Romine has good chemistry with Robinette, but beyond that it’s hard to argue that he’s the better quarterback.  If he struggles--and he very well might--we’ll probably get a good long look at Worthman in the second half this Saturday.  I should note as well that Air Force has gotten excellent play from its fullbacks, with Jacobi Owens carrying 82 times for 505 yards (6.2 yards/carry) and 3 TDs.  That is very impressive.  By comparison, Army’s Andy Davidson has 122 carries for 662 (5.4 yards/carry) and 7 TDs.

The second-most-famous graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy.
One final note: Air Force’s kicking game is also excellent.  They are 14/16 on field goals this year and 5/5 on kicks between 40 and 49 yards.  In a game where points are liable to come at a premium, that’s a decided advantage.
Match Ups
Though Air Force has owned this series, this year’s teams are evenly matched.  Both are excellent rushing teams who excel at stopping the run.  Both teams have a pair of talented fullbacks and a single difference-making wide-receiver.  Both teams can field two quarterbacks, and both are completing about 45% of their passes.  Air Force has an older, more experienced squad, but Army will be at home in front of a sold out crowd.
Air Force stopped Navy’s rushing attack and then threw on the Mids in the second half.  They’re liable to stop Army early as well, but as we saw last week, Army ought to be able to stay in the game with its own defense and a few throws to Edgar Poe and Jeff Ejekam.  From there, the game’s gonna be a dog fight.  Army could start running downhill and take control.  They could implode on multiple turnovers.
If Army can hold onto the ball and play mistake-free, then this is a winnable game.  Air Force has played an arguably tougher schedule, but they’re not a better team than, say, Temple or Wake Forest.  Nor have they played anyone of that caliber, save perhaps for Navy.  Thus, if the Black Knights play to their potential, they ought to kick ass.  If they throw seven interceptions and put the ball on the ground multiple times via fumble, then there’s no way they win.  
The good news is that we’re expecting decent weather, with clear skies and temperatures in the mid- to upper-50°s.  To date, Army has played sloppy when the weather is sloppy.  That’s not going to be the case on Saturday.

Final Thoughts
I hate Air Force.  Maybe not as much as I hate Navy, but enough.  In all honesty, I have no idea why anyone would want to go to the nation’s #3 service academy, and it galls me to no end that we consistently lose the Commander-in-Chief’s trophy to a team that no one cares about 51 weeks a year.  Reality is that Air Force’s most famous graduate is Clive Custler’s fictional protagonist Dirk Pitt, and he’s not even real.  But because the (Blue) Falcons field a perennially decent college football team, people get the wrong idea about how their Academy compare to West Point and Annapolis.  We didn’t even swim against Air Force back in my days at West Point, and honestly, no one missed the opportunity.  And yet here we are.
This game is critically important game for both squads.  At 5-3, both teams are on the cusp of bowl eligibility, and if Air Force comes out on top, they will recapture the Commander-in-Chief’s trophy--again.
That would be a sin against all that is good and right in this world.
My buddy Chris is coming up from Ft. Hood for this game, and we’ll be tailgating on Thayer Roof before kickoff.  Kickoff itself is at noon, and if you’re a member of the West Point Class of 1995, we’ll be taking a group picture in Section H at halftime.  Hit me on Facebook for the details.
Go Army!  Beat Air Force!!!

1 comment:

  1. '92 Grad sez, "beat em in the head with a big kielbasa."