Army first played Navy in football in 1890. With rare exceptions, the nation’s leading service academies have met annually on the fields of friendly strife ever since. The Army-Navy Game not only tests the mettle of the teams on the field, it also celebrates the service of America’s soldiers, sailors, and Marines.
Saturday’s match-up is the 117th meeting between Army and Navy, and if the midshipmen have enjoyed the advantage over the last decade plus, it must also be said that this season has seen a return to form for the Army team that has been in the works since 1999. Though we don’t know who’s going to win this weekend, the contest pits two (relatively) evenly matched teams against one another for the pride of America’s military.
The Army Black Knights
As I wrote yesterday, the problem with the Army team isn’t that they aren’t good. This team has loads of talent. The problem is that they’re young. This has made them inconsistent. When Army has been healthy and playing to its best football, they’ve been a wrecking machine. They’ve beaten teams that are not just good but great. Army beat ten-win Temple in its season opener—convincingly. It beat Wake Forest in a game the Demon Deacons badly needed to ensure bowl eligible. It smashed UTEP, putting up more points than the Texas Longhorns did just a week prior.
This is what Army can be. Unfortunately, it’s not always what the team has been.
Team health has been important. FB Andy Davidson got nicked up in the game at Buffalo, and WR Edgar Poe broke his hand in practice that same week, leaving Army struggling to mount consistent offense against the Bulls. Special teams have been an issue, particularly in that Buffalo game. Army missed a last-second chip shot field goal, costing them the much-needed win. The Black Knights later dropped a seven-turnover home game to a resurgent North Texas team, after which fans started wondering what the Hell was going on. Then we got that win against Wake Forest, and now I think now we know.
Army is talented. They play big in big spots. But they’ve struggled on special teams, and they’ve struggled to control mistakes. They’ve struggled for consistency. Some days they’ve channeled lightning, beating great teams on the road. Some days they’ve beaten themselves, especially in bad weather. For better or worse, these Black Knights seem to play best against the best competition. When they’ve struggled, it’s mostly been from self-inflicted wounds.
As of this writing, Army is second nationally in rushing with a whopping 328.5 yards/game. They average 5.6 yards/carry, led by FBs Andy Davidson and Darnell Woolfolk. When these two yearling (sophomore) fullbacks have success, Army’s offense is hard as Hell to stop. This then sets up the pitch outside to gain big chunks of yardage.
The strength of this Army team, though, is its defense, especially its scoring defense. The Black Knights are 14th nationally in points against, giving up just 19.1 points/game. This is based in large part on the play of Army’s linebackers, senior co-captains Andrew King and Jeremy Timpf and rush linebackers Alex Aukerman and Kenneth Brinson. Army’s rushing defense ranks 19th, allowing just 3.88 yards/rush. Its passing defense is actually 6th, but this is a little misleading. The secondary did well against Wake Forest, and they’ve succeeded in creating turnovers, but they gave up a lot of points to Notre Dame a week after Navy reminded the Irish what the triple-option looks like. Even Air Force had a good bit of its success through its intermediate passing game. As a matter of reality, the team has struggled against the deep ball since Brandon Jackson’s untimely passing following the Rice game. Army’s top cornerback, Elijah Riley, is a plebe. Riley is a good player, but the Black Knights have struggled to keep cornerbacks on the field, and they have had trouble matching up with top receivers down the field. This is less of an issue in the red zone, though, and the success of Army’s scoring defense reflects the difference.
For 14 years, Army has lost to Navy.— The Players' Tribune (@PlayersTribune) December 6, 2016
But this season is different. This season, Army is playing for No. 28. https://t.co/LQvI7shMNC pic.twitter.com/Rjje98WhHQ
Army’s biggest struggles have come in the kicking game. The Black Knights are just 50% on field goals, and though they have a long of 47 yards, they also have some mind-boggling misses in critical spots. The miss at Buffalo was particularly bad, but the kicking game has been an adventure all season long.
The Navy Midshipmen
Navy’s story begins and ends with its offensive line. The Mids have been in shootouts all season, but even when they haven’t been able to get stops, they’ve been winning on time-of-possession and sheer offensive brutality. Navy has the nation’s 3rd leading rushing attack, putting up 327.5 yards/game. Until Saturday, they also had a quarterback in Will Worth who was completing 61.5% of his passes. Their leading fullback is Chris High, who averages 6.5 yards/carry. This combination has made the Midshipmen an offensive juggernaut. With an average 39.3 points/game, Navy stands 18th in scoring offense.
The main difference between Navy’s offense and Army’s, however, isn’t with the fullbacks. It’s in the way the Mids run the power play outside, either with the quarterback or via the option pitch. Where Army relies on speed and misdirection, Navy’s O-Line flat blows people up, allowing its quarterbacks to take deeper drops. The quarterback then hits the hole running downhill. Were Army to try this, its smaller O-Line would give up too many negative plays. Navy, however, gets its tight ends and linemen up to the second level, blasting defenders off the ball and moving the chains. Though Temple did an excellent job shutting down Navy’s fullbacks in the center, even the Owls struggled with these outside power plays. However, Temple got up early and won time-of-possession, which made a huge difference in the flow of the game.
This worked because Navy’s defense has been at best mediocre. The Mids are 81st in scoring defense, allowing a whopping 30.4 points/game. Navy’s rushing defense ranks 67th nationally, allowing 4.77 yards/carry, and its passing defense is around 110th. ESPN ranks Navy’s defense 111th out of 128 teams in FBS college football. Hell, even UConn (3-9) ran all over Navy, though they couldn’t quite put the Mids away.
These Midshipmen score a lot of points, and that has put them is a position to win nine games. Their defense has gotten exactly enough stops to succeed. However, just because they run the same basic offense as Army does not mean that they have the same kind of team. In fact, these two teams are built around a substantially different models of success.
You vs the guy she told you not to worry about pic.twitter.com/QC2yKI9GGK— Jimmy Hammersticks (@JamesNachtigal) December 7, 2016
This weekend’s game is all about strength-on-strength. Navy has an excellent offense, but the best part of Army’s team is dedicated to stopping the run. The best part of Navy’s defense is in the middle of the field, but Army will need to establish the fullback to have offensive success. Navy is a precision team that rarely makes mistakes. Army plays on pure emotion.
Teams that have beaten Navy have done so by getting early stops and building a lead. When Navy gets down by more than about ten points, they rarely come back. They don’t have the defense to get off the field consistently, and their offense can’t shift uptempo. The same is not true of Army, who can at least stop people when they need to. Army came back against both Temple and Wake Forest and found ways to win.
However, Army can’t afford to let Navy dictate the pace of Saturday’s game. The Mid’s offensive line is just too good. The Black Knights will need to find offensive rhythm early and sustain success. They will need to avoid the kinds of mistakes that derailed their efforts throughout the middle of the season. They can’t afford to throw interceptions, they need to make their kicks, and they need to avoid the kinds of costly penalties that hampered their efforts against teams like Buffalo and Duke.
Tonight's #BeatNavy festivities included the Goats vs. Engineers football game, #BeatNavy bonfire and the marathon team send-off! #GoArmy pic.twitter.com/4aZK4l2i3R— US Military Academy (@WestPoint_USMA) December 7, 2016
Saturday’s contest will mark Navy’s eighth week without a break. This started to take its toll last Saturday in the American Conference Championship game. Starting quarterback Will Worth and starting slotback Toneo Gulley both broke bones in their feet. Slotback Dishan Romine left with a leg injury. Slotback Darryl Bonner left with a head injury. It’s a safe bet that a bunch more Navy players are nursing minor injuries as well.
How much will this affect the game?
It’s hard to say. Sophomore QB Zach Abey will get the start. He’s averaging 7.6 yards/carry, but most of this has presumably come in garbage time. Perhaps more importantly, Abey is just a 54% passer, averaging almost 4 yards/pass less than Worth. Army was already going to need to bring a safety down into the box to stop the run. It’s therefore critical that Abey presents a less threatening presence throwing the ball. Army’s young corners are going to have to play in man-coverage, and if Brandon Jackson were in this game, I would count on at least one interception. Riley has the talent to play at that level, but it’s still a tough ask for a plebe cornerback.
A critical concern for the Mids must be the health of their offensive line. Those guys just took a beating against Temple, and now they come into the biggest game of the season against guys who would like nothing more than to knock their asses out. A degradation of Navy’s O-Line play could make this a lopsided game, and not in a way that favors Annapolis.
Army has had two weeks to rest and fourteen years to work up a good, old-fashioned rage. Air Force showed the template for beating Navy, and Temple proved that the Midshipmen’s offense is mortal. Last year’s game was supposed to be a blowout, but Army kept it close despite starting a plebe quarterback with exactly one previous start. This year, the Black Knights would very much like to land a knockout punch.
Go Army! Beat Navy!!!