Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Army Football Preview: The Heart of Dallas Bowl

When last we left the Army Black Knights, they were celebrating on the field at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore, victorious over Navy for the first time since 2001.  Army played an excellent first half, lost focus with multiple turnovers in the third quarter, allowed the Middies back into the game, and then closed the door with authority using a strong performance in the final quarter.  Since then, Army fandom has run wild while the cadets themselves have suffered through Term End Exams and—presumably—begun refocusing for their last game of the season, the Heart of Dallas Bowl against mid-season foe North Texas.
December 27, 2016, at noon on ESPN. 

The Heart of Dallas Bowl is a fitting final game for Army for two reasons.  First, it’s a bowl game to honor first responders, a natural extension of the patriotism and selfless service at the heart of the Academy’s professional ethos.  Second, Dallas is in Texas, and as anyone who’s served already knows, half the Army is from Texas.  Between Ft. Hood, Ft. Bliss, Ft. Sam Houston, and a few others, quite a bit of the Army is currently stationed in Texas as well.  North Texas is technically the home team for this game--their campus is about a forty-five minute drive from the stadium--and I expect that they will have plenty of fans in attendance.  However, I expect Army will put some people into the stands as well, especially after that big win over Navy.  
The Bowl Committee itself is looking to put some 7,500 first responders into the stands as honorary fans as well, a group I expect will split at least 50/50 in Army’s favor.  The game is being played in the Cotton Bowl—cue the irony alert for Navy fans—and all things considered, this game might very well become a raucous affair.

The Army Black Knights
Army (7-5, Independent) faced North Texas in the eighth week of the season, putting up what would prove to be their worst performance of the season in a game that featured frigid drizzly rain and heavy wind.  Army rose to the occasion several times this season, but they laid an egg against the Mean Green in a game they badly needed for bowl eligibility.  As it happens, both teams wound up qualifying for bowls on the basis of their Academic Progress Rates, though Army’s win over Navy means that the Black Knights are in fact bowl eligible on the basis of their seasonal performance as well.  Prior to the Navy game, however, this particular bowl game ranked last in terms of total team power rankings.
Nevertheless, this was a terrible game for quarterback Ahmad Bradshaw.  North Texas came into Michie Stadium determined to stop the Fullback Dive and string out the option, and they succeeded.  They committed eight to the box and flowed hard towards the strong side on every snap[1].  Army ran a few reverse and counter plays to gain a bit of breathing room, but they spent most of their time trying to throw out of the problem—a disastrous idea.  Bradshaw’s first pass went high, and when the receiver tipped it, a North Texas defender intercepted the ball and returned it for a pick-six.  Really, this was the game in which Army needed to go to QB Chris Carter, but Carter was unavailable thanks to a hand injury.  With Carter out, Bradshaw was stuck throwing all over place, and that is just not his strength.  He went 7/21 with 4 interceptions, and the team had 7 fumbles, with 3 lost.  Seven turnovers total.  Army gained more than 300 yards on the ground and wound up with a substantial edge in time-of-possession, but they couldn’t overcome their sloppiness despite multiple chances.
The team bounced back the next week against Wake Forest, and that’s when it occurred to me that this year’s Army team, though they play in Upstate New York, is actually a warm weather team.  Their best games?  Temple and Wake Forest, both under crystal blue skies with eighty-degree temperatures.  Their worst?  The tsunami at Duke, the North Texas game in freezing drizzle, Buffalo amidst the first cold snap of the season, and their four turnover performance against Navy with temperatures well below freezing.  Granted, they beat Navy; they still put the ball on the ground four times.  In particular, the cold weather seems to affect FB Andy Davidson, who had fumbles in all of the games mentioned above.  By comparison, Davidson was rock solid against Wake Forest and Temple, both of whom feature absolutely first-rate rushing defenses, as well as UTEP and Morgan State.

The North Texas Mean Green
Prior to their October meeting, North Texas (5-7, 3-5 C-USA) had an extra week to prepare for an Army team that came into that game looking tired and carrying a number of key injuries.  The Mean Green used their time productively, coming up with a defense that effectively limited Army’s triple-option while forcing turnovers.  The good news for North Texas is that Army has not exactly fixed its turnover problem.  The bad news is that I don’t think there are all that many creative ways to scheme to stop the triple-option, and Army now has extra time of its own to think about attacking what it saw last time.
Looking at North Texas’s statistics, it’s hard to see how Army lost their last meeting.  I mean, yeah, I was in the stands, so I know that Army lost on turnovers, but man, this was a game that the Black Knights absolutely gave away.  By year’s end, the Mean Green stood 95th in passing offense (199.5 yards/game) and 108th in rushing offense (136.7 yards/game) while allowing almost six more points/game than they scored.  Those are not impressive numbers.  They are especially unimpressive against a Top 5 total defense.  Moreover, it’s not like the Mean Green have improved since their trip to Michie Stadium. Prior to meeting Army, North Texas scored wins over FCS Bethune-Cookman, Rice, and Marshall.  After Army, the Mean Green dropped four games out of five, including to C-USA basement-dweller UTEP.
This is not to say that North Texas’s season has been without its bright spots.  In fact, the Mean Green have had a season that is broadly similar to Army’s.  Despite inconsistent play, they’ve started of a turnaround under a relatively new head coach.  Like Army, they have some young players.  Freshman quarterback Mason Fine is a perfect example.  He’s been a revelation, going 155/261 for 1,572 yds (59.4%) with 6 touchdowns, but he’s also thrown 5 interceptions.  Worse, he got hurt in the Western Kentucky game, so it's unclear as of this writing whether Fine will play next week.  If not, we'll see Alabama graduate transfer Alec Morris (53.7% completion; 6 TDs, 6 INTs), who hasn't played nearly as well as expected.  Similarly, junior RB Jeffery Wilson has carried for 5.7 ypc, but he's also been playing hurt, and it has hampered his effectiveness.  All of which has meant that the Mean Green offense has had trouble staying on the field, especially since Fine's injury.  The difference has shown up in North Texas's record.

via ESPN.
Based on what we’ve seen, I see two potential game plans:
North Texas succeeded last time by flowing defenders to the strong side of the play, so Army needs to run enough reverse and counter plays to make this tactic counter-productive.  We saw this with plebe SB Kell Walker in the Navy game, and Walker wound up becoming that game’s leading rusher with 94 yards.  I will not be surprised if we this again.  We may also some see variation with Bradshaw booting out to the weak side with Walker as a potential pitch-man or with options to throw down the field.  Or we may just see Army man up with its now-healthy offensive line and blow North Texas straight off the ball.
A second possibility is to run a completely different offensive package using QB Chris Carter.  This is a riskier proposition, but it’s also the kind of thing we haven’t seen from Army since last year’s Navy game.  That would undoubtedly catch the Mean Green by surprise.  I have mixed feelings about it, though, because Ahmad Bradshaw has definitely earned the right to be Army’s starting quarterback.  I would still like to see Carter get some more opportunities, however, because barring an injury, this is pretty much his last shot until 2018.  Bradshaw heads into the offseason as the team’s undisputed offensive leader.
Final Thoughts
Before the Navy game, most prognosticators were either picking North Texas, or they were poo-poo’ing this game in its entirety.  More recent articles have reliably favored the Black Knights, and last I checked, the line was Army (-9).  The issue here is that Army has tended to underperform against mediocre teams when favored, and North Texas is going to treat this game like it’s the Super Bowl.  Meanwhile, Army already had its big game; the Heart of Dallas is a nice-to-have, but it’s not the season’s make-or-break contest.
I don’t love that.
Via ESPN: "A crisis of confidence with these bowl predictions".

Reality is that Army is still on a mission.  To complete the turnaround, the team needs to win its bowl game, finish 8-5, and put lingering doubts to rest.  They haven’t both beaten Navy and won a bowl game since 1984[2].  Winning Tuesday will complete the culture change, help with recruiting, and end an already great season on the correct note.  

I’m still worried about the team’s focus, but if the Black Knights play with heart and composure, they should do fine.  It won’t hurt if we get decent weather, too.

[1] The Unbalanced Line, “Army 4-3,” Oct. 26, 2016. 
[2] Sal Interdonato, “Knight Cap,” Inside Army Football, Dec. 11, 2016. 

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