Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Army Football Preview: at Tulane

I didn’t love Army’s game against Ohio State, but it’s had to say that the team failed to meet expectations.  Their 99-yard drive to end the second quarter was one of the best Army offensive efforts of the last ten years.  The Black Knights managed to establish the Fullback Dive against one of the best rushing defenses in the country, and though they still lost by 30+ points, they at least did it in a way that seems to have captured some positive media attention.  Ohio State fell two spots in the AP Poll despite the win, and Army picked up a big-time recruiting commitment from the state of Texas.  
It’s never good to lose, but overall, I guess the game itself went about as well as we might’ve hoped.
This week, the Black Knights travel to New Orleans to take on the Tulane Green Wave, a decidedly similar team coming off a similar schedule with largely similar results.  One of these teams will come out with a hard-fought victory, having taken an important step towards bowl eligibility.
The Army Black Knights
Here’s what we’ve learned: Army can run its offense against anyone.  QB Ahmad Bradshaw is not and never will be a particularly efficient passer, but he makes good reads in the triple-option, and that’s been enough to move the chains.  Granted, different teams have defended the triple-option in different ways, with Buffalo putting more emphasis on stopping the Fullback Dive while Ohio State was—amazingly—willing to give up yards in the middle in order to play sound defense across the breadth of the line of scrimmage, but even the Buckeyes allowed Army nearly 300 yards on the ground.  A team with even slightly less-elite linebackers would have lost Saturday’s game to Army’s time-of-possession advantage.  Alas, the Buckeyes had the right guys to withstand the storm.  What can you do?  After three weeks, Army remains the #2 rushing offense in the country.  The Black Knights are averaging 364.7 yards/game on the ground, or 6.4 yards/carry.
What’s a little more worrying is that Bradshaw and FB Darnell Woolfolk together have 57.9% of Army’s offensive carries, and outside of SB Kell Walker, Army running backs have barely contributed.  A bunch of guys got carries in the second half against Fordham, but Army’s fullbacks have done an outsized portion of the work this year, and even a talented guy like SB Jordan Asberry has just 3 pitches on the season, granted for 28 yards (9.3 yards/carry).  I was happy when Coach Monken got FBs Andy Davidson and Calen Holt involved on Saturday, especially after Woolfolk had to carry so much of the load himself late in the game against Buffalo.  But we still need to see more of Asberry and the other slotbacks.  That’s especially true if Kell Walker is going to stay on kick return duty.
To date, Army’s defense has been less good.  They were excellent against Fordham, and they were good against Buffalo once they started bringing safety pressure up at the line of scrimmage.  Still, they gave up a lot of yardage to the Bulls’ rushing attack in the first half, and they struggled mightily to contain Ohio State.  This was especially true once firstie S Rhyan England went out of the game.  England’s status remains a mystery, but it can’t be good considering that he left the field on Saturday on a cart.  That’s unfortunate.  He’s an important defensive team leader and a very good free safety.  If he’s lost for the year, it could affect the number and kinds of blitzes that Defensive Coordinator Jay Bateman feels he can call against various teams.
As of this writing, Army’s rushing defense is ranked 78th.  They’ve allowed 455 yards on 89 carries (5.11 yards/carry; 151.7 yards/game) and 5 touchdowns.  They’ve been better in the red zone, however, giving up just 20.3 points/game, good for 46th in FBS college football.
Bottom line: when Army’s defense has avoided giving up big plays, they’ve been stout.  But they gave up three big plays to Buffalo and several to the Buckeyes.  If they’ve lost their starting free safety, that complicates coverages downfield, making the task of stopping those big plays that much more difficult going forward.
My last note is on special teams.  Army has dramatically improved its kickoffs, and it has continued to get good kick and punt coverage.  However, the team is 1/3 on field goals, and that’s a problem.  Had Army made its field goal against Ohio State, it would have closed the Buckeyes’ lead to a single score and allowed the Black Knights to kick off and set their defense deliberately.  Instead, the kick missed, and Army’s defense came out in a hurry.  Two plays later, the game got out of hand.
The Tulane Green Wave
The Tulane Green Wave are a broadly similar team to Army who’ve played a broadly similar schedule with similar results.  They beat Grambling handily in Week 1, lost a close game to Navy in Week 2, and then got blasted by an elite Oklahoma squad this past Saturday.  Granted, Navy is a better team than Buffalo.  Still, there are similarities.  Tulane struggled to move the ball early before mounting  a quality comeback that very nearly worked.  In the end, the Green Wave couldn’t quite sustain the big drive they needed to put the Mids away, though they made a valiant attempt.  They did a nice job Navy’s stopping rushing attack in the second half, and that’s a trick that not everyone manages.

Tulane’s offense runs a version of the triple-option, but they call it a zone-option, and they run it out of a spread set with three wide receivers.  It’s still a run-first scheme, but it substitutes a QB zone-read where Army uses the Fullback Dive, counting on the quarterback’s lateral quickness and the width of the spread to open up defenses along the line of scrimmage.
It’s an interesting scheme.  As of this writing, the Green Wave are 21st in the FBS in rushing, averaging 4.55 yards/carry and 241.3 yards/game.  RB Dontrell Hilliard leads the team with 46 carries for 208 yds (4.5 ypc) and 2 touchdowns.  Backup QB Johnathan Brantley is next with 31 carries for 148 yds (4.8 ypc) and 2 touchdowns of his own.  Brantley came in during the Navy game when would-be starter Jonathan Banks went out with some kind of torso injury.  Banks is a better passer, but it’s hard to say that the Green Wave have lost a lot from bringing in Brantley considering how the Navy game played out.  Banks was 13/20 passing when he went out (65%) for 198 yards and 3 touchdowns.  Most of that came against Grambling.  By comparison, Brantley is 10/17 passing (58.8%) for 101 yards and a touchdown, but that’s against decidedly stiffer competition.
Banks has been practicing, so one would assume he gets the start against Army.  If so, I expect we’ll see more throws and pitches and less QB Keepers given his particular skillset.
On defense, Tulane is again very similar to Army.  The Green Wave have allowed 468 yards on 106 carries (4.42 yards/carry; 156 yards/game) and 6 touchdowns.  That puts them 82nd overall, but they’ve just come off games against Navy and Oklahoma, both of whom are excellent rushing teams.  More tellingly, the Green Wave have allowed 31.0 points/game (95th) while scoring just 26.0 (89th).  This from a team that’s very familiar with the triple-option, that has Navy in-conference, and that runs a version of the option itself in its basic offense.  With that, they held even last year’s mighty Navy offense to just 21 points.
After watching Army move the pile against Ohio State, I have faith that the Black Knights will find a way to pound the rock and score points.  The key matchups, then, are on defense.
Army Linebackers vs. the Zone-Option.  If this were 2016, I’d expect LB Jeremy Timpf to have 50 tackles in this game.  Timpf played great in games like this, shutting down running plays at the line of scrimmage and forcing mistakes in the passing game.  In 2017, though, Army has had to bring more safety help to stop the running game and get pressure, and against a spread-option team, that could cause some serious problems.  This is doubly true if S Rhyan England can’t go.
Army will need better play out of its linebackers this week.  They need to get a few stops early, let their offense go to work, and wear on Tulane’s defense while they themselves rest and attack.  Tulane plays this same game, however, which is why Army will need to play particularly sound defense.  The Green Wave are averaging 4.4 yards/carry.  That’s not great, but it’s certainly enough to sustain drives if Army’s linebackers can’t force the issue at the line of scrimmage.
Army Football vs. its opponents: P(wins) comparison screenshot via Google Docs.
Army Secondary vs. 3 Wide-Receiver Sets.  Assuming that the Black Knights drop a safety into run support against a run-first team, we may well have an issue covering downfield against a 65% passing quarterback.  We’ve seen Army play good defense most of the time, but they’ve given up their fair share of big plays, too.  If I’m coaching Tulane, I’m trying to stretch Army’s young secondary and see what I can get downfield.
Army needs to stop the run without giving up big plays over the top.  Occasional quick outs in the passing game aren’t going to win this one for either side, but some timely big plays might.  This is what the Army defense needs to guard against.
Final Thoughts
The early line on this game has Army somewhere between a 2 and 4-point road underdog, with the betting models noting that Army’s rushing defense hasn’t been very good on the road this season.  But that’s dumb.  The Black Knights have played exactly one road game against arguably the best team in the country.  They kept that game far closer than last year’s squad kept the neutral site game against the Fighting Irish, and that Irish team wasn’t very good, and last year’s rushing defense was #4 overall.  Those same computer models predict a final score of Army 28, Tulane 23.  I should also note that Army is 4-2 against the spread in its last six games.  The over/under currently sits at 45.5.
Important statistical note: Statistics are useless without quality sample size.
I honestly don’t know if this year’s defense is quite as good as last year’s, but they certainly could be.  They were excellent against Fordham, and they did far better against an improved Buffalo team than last year’s squad did.  We’ll learn a lot about this year’s Army defense from this very game.  If Army’s linebackers make consistent stops against Tulane’s running game, Army wins.  If they don’t, Army loses.  That’s not complicated.
ESPN’s FPI makes this game a pick’em.  FPI puts Army 0.0 points worse than an “average” college football team, ranking the Black Knights 64th overall in the FBS.  Tulane stands 3.9 points worse than average, good for 73rd in the FBS.  That ought to make Army a 4-point favorite, minus 3 points for playing at Tulane.  Given the opening spread, we should expect to see the line move towards Army as the week progresses.  Bettors haven’t been real big on the Black Knights, however, despite their being pretty good against the spread dating back to last season.
Saturday’s kickoff is scheduled for noon Eastern, 11:00 am Central (local) time in New Orleans.  CBS Sports has the game.  Army will wear the 25th Infantry Division patch.
Go Army!  Beat Tulane!!!

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