Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Army Football Preview: vs. Temple

Wow.  What did I tell you?  Eastern Michigan might be 2-4, but they are less than a half-dozen plays from being 6-0, and one of those was a blocked punt against the SEC’s Kentucky.  In the words of EMU’s head coach, “We’ve played six games, and five of them have essentially come down to the last play.  We won one, but we’ve been on the short end of the stick on the other ones.  Our guys believe that we’re going to win, so these sting pretty good.”1
Army fans ought to remember how that feels from our own season back in 2015.
Don’t fool yourself.  EMU has a very good football team.  They may yet rebound and become bowl eligible, though that would take some amazing play down the stretch.  Personally, I hope they make it.  
Army won an important game last Saturday, and now they have an opportunity to set the tone for the rest of their season.  Temple comes to town this week, and after that, the degree of difficulty ramps up considerably.  We need a win to secure bowl eligibility before heading into by far the hardest stretch of the season.
I’m fired up.  If you’re an Army fan, it’s be hard not to be.

The Army Black Knights
Army’s offense is rolling.  They put up 413 yards and 6.88 yards/carry on one of the best rushing and scoring defenses in all of college football.  Oh, it’s true.  That Eagles defense has been excellent.  But QB Ahmad Bradshaw put up the 4th-best QBR in the entire country on Saturday, and he didn’t even complete a pass!2  As of this writing, Army’s fullbacks are averaging 5.3 yards/carry.  Bradshaw is at 7.7, and SB Kell Walker gets a whopping 9.3 yards every time he touches the ball.
That is straight pounding the rock, people.
For those who care about such things, Army has moved into 2nd place nationally in rushing, averaging some 378.4 yards/game.  They remain last in passing, but who cares?  Army out-gained EMU 413 yards to 364, and though the teams were even on 1st downs at 21 apiece, Army held a nearly 15-minute time-of-possession advantage.  If you’re wondering why the Eagles went for 2 at the end of the game, this is why. Their defense had been on the field a lot.  It was extremely doubtful that prolonging the agony would have increased their odds of victory.

Army is still giving up too way many rushing yards (170.7/game or 5.5/carry), but I’m starting to think that some of this is at least partially defensive.  For EMU in particular, an unbalanced aerial attack risked putting their defense in extreme jeopardy coming off a potential 3-and-out.  Army’s time-of-possession advantage would have destroyed them.  The Eagles ran the hurry-up to good effect a few times, but the Black Knights bent without ever really breaking.  That marks a significant improvement.  Since the Tulane game, Army has given up rushing yards in chunks, but we haven’t seen as many straight-up busted coverages, and the defense is making crucial stops in critical places.
That makes the team’s average yards allowed look a little worse than their true impact has been on the field.  Long drives force teams to execute repeatedly, and that’s not easy.  EMU got into any number of 3rd-and-long and 4th-and-long situations, giving Army chances to force punts.  Granted, Brogan Roback still made a goodly share of heroic passing plays to convert in the clutch, but Army’s scheme remained basically successful.  With that in mind, we can see both why and how Army remains 36th in scoring defense with 20.3 points allowed/game despite having objectively poor rush defense statistics.  In the end, the points matter, not the yards.
While we’re talking about it, Army’s defense could stand to get a few more sacks.  They let Roback out of the pocket a few times to disastrous effect, and if I’ve given the guy credit for making clutch plays, it’s also true that Army’s pass rush could’ve turned the game with exactly one well-timed hit.  To my eyes, it looked like Roback was throwing all over the field, and indeed, as I’m thinking about Army’s secondary, it seems emotionally as though they’ve given up a lot of big plays in the passing game.  That’s not actually true, however.  In reality, Army has allowed just 191 yards passing/game and 9 passing touchdowns.  That puts Army 28th nationally.  Busted coverages aside, Army’s passing defense has been pretty damned good.  Add in their turnover margin (+4, 39th overall), and I think it’s safe to say that this defense has turned the corner, though there remain plenty of places where they can improve.
Getting S Rhyan England back will undoubtedly help.  The flipside of that is that Army’s young safeties have seen an awful lot of live game action in relief, especially S Max Regan.  That can only help going forward.  England’s loss probably cost Army a win against Tulane, but the team still sits 5-2, so the tradeoff hasn’t been disastrous.  Nevertheless, it’ll be good to get the guy back.
The Temple Owls
Temple looked like they were really building something last year, but then QB P.J. Walker & RB Jahad Thomas graduated, and Coach Matt Rhule left for Baylor, and that’s when the wheels came off.  The Owls hired former Florida DC Geoff Collins, and I thought they’d hang tough, especially on defense, but that’s not what happened.  Instead, the Owls now sit 3-4 with a bad opening weekend loss to Notre Dame, an alarmingly close win against FCS Villanova, another close win against FBS roadkill UMass, blowout losses to USF and Houston3, a potentially season-turning win against ECU, and finally, a loss this past weekend at home to AAC bottom feeder UConn.

Most alarmingly, Temple’s rushing defense has fallen apart.  In prior years, the Owls were 
stout along their D-Line.  Now they’re giving up just under 4.5 yards/carry and 167.1 yards/game.  You can win like that, but not when you’re also giving up 231.9 yards passing/game for an average net of nearly 400 yards of offense allowed every single week.  If that’s the plan, you have to score like crazy.
Spoiler alert: Temple has not been scoring like crazy.
In some ways, then, Temple is like a lesser version of Eastern Michigan but without EMU’s big D-Tackles and elite pass rush.  Like EMU, Temple has been decent through the air, averaging some 251.1 yards/game (54th), but not so good on the ground, averaging just 102.4 yards rushing /game (121st).  QB Logan Marchi is 136/245 passing (55.5%) for 1,658 yards and 9 touchdowns but also 8 interceptions.  Two of those interceptions came last weekend against UConn, including a pick-six.  The Owls have three receivers with at least 20 catches—Isaiah Wright, Keith Kirkwood, and Adonis Jennings.  All three average at least 14 yards/catch.  Which would be great if the Owls were running the ball with more authority.  As it is, though, RB Ryquell Armstead has 86 carries for just 277 yards (3.2 yards/carry) while RB David Hood has fewer carries, 52, but a much better average (4.7 yards/carry).   Hood also catches pretty well out of the backfield, but for whatever reason, it looks like he’s only just moved into the starter’s role.  The Owls’ running game may very well improve as Hood picks up carries.
To date, though, the Owls have struggled to score points while simultaneously lacking a significant defensive strength around which to build a game plan.  They’re averaging just 19.9 points/game (118th) while allowing 26.3 (70th).  It’s tough to win when you’re a pass-first team with a quarterback who completes less than 60% of his passes.  Granted, the Owls have played some tough teams in Notre Dame, USF, and Houston, but they also struggled to move the ball against UMass, and they made 2-4 UConn’s defense look legit on the road.  Not everyone has done that.
I’m torn.  I was tempted to say that if Army can run the ball this week and control the flow of the game, they’ll win.  But I said that last week, and then Army ran the crap out of the ball, and it still came down to the defense to make the decisive play.  
Week 7 Army Wins-Predicted vs. opponents.
This week’s contest looks less even in terms of both FPI and P(wins), so I think Army might run with a bit more power, and that could mean a lot of points.  And yet, I still think the decisive point is probably the same as it was against EMU.
Army Pass Rush vs. QB Logan Marchi.  Army got some pressure last week, but they didn’t get a sack.  That has to change.  Marchi probably isn’t as good as Brogan Roback, but his receivers might actually be better, and Army’s secondary had all it could handle last week.  Army needs to force the issue more effectively up front, creating more consistent pressure and causing mistakes.  That’s the key.
Marchi turned it over twice against UConn.  Army needs to get in his grill and cause those issues to recur.  Not to get all “theory of warfare” on you, but if LBs Alex Aukerman and Kenneth Brinson can get inside Marchi’s decision cycle and create confusion, the Black Knights ought to win this game in a rout.
Army Fullbacks vs. Temple’s Front 7.  On paper at least, this week’s matchup looks tough for Temple.  Army has faced some good rushing defenses recently but has succeeded in moving the ball.  Against big D-Tackles, like those from Buffalo, EMU, or even Rice, this has required some scheming.  Army couldn’t just pound the fullback.  The Black Knights had to get their playmakers out in space, gain yards on the outside, and wear at opposing defenses both laterally and consistently over time.  Going back to theory, the Fullback Dive wasn’t the Main Effort; it was a fixing attack meant to spring Bradshaw or Walker off-tackle or around the perimeter.  Not coincidentally, both those guys have had two 100+ yard games in a row.
Temple, though, is already giving up 4.5 yards/carry and almost 170 yards rushing/game.  With that, I expect Army to attack straight ahead, pounding the rock to establish physical and emotional dominance.  If the Black Knights can control the clock, dishearten the Owls defense, and put 14 points on the board before the Owls score themselves, they can make it very hard for Marchi and company to stay competitive.
You get 14 up on Air Force or Duke, and you still have a ball game.  Get up 14 on Temple, though, and they’ve been much less prone to mount a comeback.

@TempleUniv vs. Good Taste & Decency.  If you have some time, there's a whole collection of these, and they are truly glorious.
Final Thoughts
The line on this game opened at Army (-6.5), but it’s moved towards Temple slightly, with sportsbooks currently offering odds as low as Temple (+5.5).4  I’m a little surprised.  Even Football Outsiders’ S&P+ system5, which is typically very negative on the Black Knights’ particular version of the triple-option, likes Army by about 6, and that’s before we consider home field advantage.  That almost never happens.
Oddsshark’s computer model predicts a final score of Army 37.0, Temple 21.8, meaning that they’re taking the Black Knights to both win and cover.  But they’ve been over-predicting Army’s margin of victory all season, to the point where I think maybe we ought to cut their estimate in half.  Even by that standard, though, Army ought to cover.  The team has historically done very well against struggling rushing defenses, especially at home.  If they get up early, they’ll force Temple to get away from the run, and that way lies madness.
Army will wear the 2nd Infantry Division patch this weekend, and I’m meeting my buddy Keith for some pregame tailgating.  I am fired up.  I may even wear a 2ID hat to show solidarity with the team.  We’ll see if I can find one.
Coffee stout or sour, Keith?
Go Army!  Beat Temple!!!

1. CBS Sports, “Army holds off Eastern Michigan 28-27,” Oct 14, 2017. 
2. ESPN. “Barrett stood above the rest in Week 7,”
3. Temple’s final score against Houston was 20-13, but the game wasn’t actually that close.  Houston went up 20-3 in the 3rd quarter before giving up 10 points in garbage time.
4. Oddsshark.Com, “Temple Owls vs. Army Black Knights.” 
5. Football Outsiders, “2017 NCAA Football S&P+ Ratings through Games of 10/14/17.” 

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