Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Army Football Preview: Eastern Michigan

Army beat the living Hell out of a bad Rice team last week, and really, that’s about all we can ask.  Sure, Rice ran for some 200 yards, and I think that maybe DC Jay Bateman will want to take a look at the way his defense attacks the Jet Sweep before the Temple game, but that’s kind of a nitpick when you win by 5+ touchdowns.  The Black Knights set out to create turnovers, and they came away with 6, including a pick-six from S Max Regan.  That’s a good sign and a good way to win football games, too.
This week, Army hosts the Eastern Michigan Eagles, and I expect it to be one of the most closely contested games of the season.  Like Army, Eastern Michigan is coming off a successful rebuilding campaign, finishing 2016 with both a winning record and a bowl appearance for the first time in recent memory.  Now the Eagles are trying to build on that momentum behind Senior QB Brogan Roback and a top-ranked defense.  They come into Saturday’s game having dropped a few close contests to quality opponents and in need of a statement win to get themselves back on track.  Their game against Army is their last non-conference contest.

The Army Black Knights
Army struggled to move the ball initially on Saturday against a Rice team that has been pretty good against the run.  For the most part, the Owls stayed stout along their interior, making it tough for Army’s fullbacks to get any traction.  But that style defense opened up pitch plays along the outside, leading to a career high 127 yards rushing and 3 touchdowns for SB Kell Walker on just 10 carries!  Several other slotbacks had long runs, and Army finished the game just 15 yards from putting another 6 points on the board.  With an average 372.7 yards rushing/game, the Black Knights remain 3rd on the ground overall.  They’re also still last in passing, having completed just 1/3 against Rice—with their lone completion coming from 3rd string QB Kelvin Hopkins.
With an average of 6.3 yards/carry, there’s no mystery about why Army doesn’t pass.  They’re moving the ball quite successfully with their base triple-option offense.  They have 24 rushing touchdowns (2nd), and it doesn’t hurt that they’ve won time of possession in every game.
On defense, well, forcing 6 turnovers will do wonders for your statistical efficiency.  Last week, ESPN had Army’s defense ranked 86th overall.  This week, they’re up 8 spots to 78th.  The Black Knights are now 37th in the FBS in total turnovers, with 2 interceptions, 7 forced fumbles, and a total turnover margin of +3.  Army’s rushing defense remains a problem, with the Black Knights surrendering 1,060 yards on just 193 carries—176.7 yards/game and a whopping 5.49 yards/carry—but they’ve given up just 10 rushing touchdowns.  That’s not terrible.

In fact, this defense has been decent all things considered.  Despite giving up a long touchdown reception to Rice on Saturday, Army’s scoring defense sits at 29th in the FBS with just 19.2 points allowed/game.  They’ve been particularly good against the pass, surrendering just 184.7 yards/game.  With a pass-happy Eastern Michigan team headed to Michie on Saturday, that’ll be something to watch.
The Eastern Michigan Eagles
Eastern Michigan currently sits at 2-3, with wins over Rutgers and Charlotte and losses to Ohio, Kentucky, and Toledo.  Their last four games have all been very close.  They beat Rutgers by 3 but then lost to Ohio by 7, Kentucky by 4, and Toledo by 5.  Each of those games could have gone either way.  In the last three, the Eagles just haven’t been able to close out that last drive and come away with a victory.

Despite having a senior quarterback and a big-play offense, really, it’s the defense that makes Eastern Michigan go.  The Eagles have two massive defensive tackles, Dion Dason and Oddie Granger, each weighing in at something like 320 lbs.  They have also D-Ends who can get up the field and blow up plays, along with talented linebackers and the ability to disguise coverages at the snap1.  With that, they’re allowing just 194.6 yards passing, 129.6 yards rushing, and 18.2 points/game (21st).  That is all very good.  In particular, their rushing defense has allowed just 648 yards on 191 carries (3.4 yards/carry) and 4 touchdowns.  That puts them 44th overall in the FBS.

The Eagles’ problem has been scoring points.  With an average of just 4.92 yards/play on offense and 19.0 points/game, they’ve been unable to sustain drives and finish.  Nevertheless, they are much better than either their record or their overall FPI score (-8.1, 95th) indicates.  
Eastern Michigan is not a bad football team.  They’re a team that’s searching for offensive consistency.
QB Brogan Roback is 118/196 passing (60.2%) for 1,280 yards, 5 touchdowns, and 6 interceptions.  That and the occasional halfback pass are the Eagles’ whole offense.  As a team, they’re passing for an average of 276.8 yards/game (33rd) but rushing for just 74.2 yards/game (130th).  Their top 2 rushers get just 3.6 yards/carry, but they have 3 receivers averaging more than 14 yards/catch and another averaging just over 11.  That makes this a big-play offense.  The Eagles might struggle at times to sustain drives, and there’s no doubting that they’ve suffered from some untimely turnovers, but they throw down the field, and they have athletes to make big plays on the outside.  That makes them a unique challenge for the Black Knights.
I haven’t watched as much Eastern Michigan Football as I’ve meant to this season, but every time I’ve turned them on, they seem to be down a score with Brogan Roback trying desperately to bring his team back before the clock runs out.  The guy is a gunslinger.  He makes plays, but he also sees a lot of punts, both because he can’t consistently sustain drives and because opposing teams can’t sustain them, either, against the Eagles’ aggressive pass rush.
EMU's point differential indicates a much better team than its record suggests.
With that in mind, the matchups this week are all about rhythm and consistency.   This game will be decided by whichever offense can stay on the field.
Army Offense vs. Eastern Michigan’s D-Line.  With the Eagles’ big D-Line and penetrating pass rush, this matchup is liable to look a lot like Army’s game against Ohio State.  The good news is that Army got good push in the center against the Buckeyes, allowing them to negate OSU’s defensive quickness and gain consistent yardage with the Fullback Dive.  They will need to do that again; that’s the best way to attack up-field penetration.  Unfortunately, however, that kind of defensive team speed tends to make it hard to run the Option-Pitch, leaving Army with virtually no margin for error on offense.  
Against Ohio State, the Black Knights put together one sustained scoring drive but then struggled to keep their offense on the field.  If they can play more consistently on Saturday, they can probably wear the Eagles down.  The flipside of that, though, is that if the Eagles get good pursuit, attack the intermesh, and consistently force punts, Army is screwed.
Army Pass Rush vs. QB Brogan Roback.  Roback is a 60% passer who’s not afraid to take chances.  He has legitimate athletes outside.  If Roback get in rhythm, he’ll tear Army a new ass.  If Army can get pressure, though, Roback has shown that he’s prone to mistakes.
Army is going to need to get some turnovers in order to keep its offense out on the field and wear at that talented Eagles’ defense.  They’ll need to get pressure without opening up ridiculous running lanes or allowing Roback to scramble for first downs, though.  That’s been an issue at times this season.
Army Safeties vs. Eagles Wide Receivers.  Army has been burned for too many big passing plays over the top this season.  We saw two from Buffalo, a bunch from Ohio State, and one even from lowly Rice.  Those big passing plays are the Eagles’ bread-and-butter.  Army’s safeties need to force the issue and come away with picks.  
Final Thoughts
As of this writing, Army is a 4.5-point favorite with the vig leaning slightly towards Eastern Michigan.  Oddshark’s model puts the final score at Army 35.2, Eastern Michigan 24.4.  They were right last week when they said that Army would win, cover, and go over.  Let’s hope they’re right again.  To date, Eastern Michigan has been a dead-steady “under” team, but they haven’t seen the triple-option lately, nor have they had an extra week to prepare for the unique style of Army’s offense.  Coming off games against Ohio and Toledo, Army will undoubtedly benefit from the vast stylistic differences between the triple-option and the spread looks common to the MAC.  This as much as anything ought to open up some pitch lanes on the outside.
We’re back on CBS Sports this week, thankfully, with kickoff scheduled for noon.  Army will wear the 7th ID patch.
My good buddy Chris is coming up from Ft. Hood with his son for this game, and my buddy Gabe and his son are going with us as well.  The Corps needs to be on point.  If we don’t walk away from Saturday’s game with at least one verbal commitment from one of these two fine young American men, the nation itself will have a good deal to answer for.
Go Army!  Beat Eastern Michigan!!!

1.  Andrew Gillis, “Football X's and O's: A look at the big Eastern Michigan defensive line,” The Post, Sept. 21, 2017.

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