Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Army Football Preview: at Air Force

After a week of rest and preparation, the Army Team heads to Colorado Springs to take on a suddenly hot Air Force squad that would very much like to put itself back into the race for the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy while simultaneously taking an important step towards bowl eligibility.  The Black Knights have seen a bunch of good defenses this year, but the Falcons own by far the toughest offense they’ll have faced.  It will be interesting to see how the team responds.
After an impressive road win against Colorado State, the Zoomies are back home and no doubt feeling confident with Army coming to town.  Army hasn’t beaten Air Forceat Air Force since 2005.  In fact, the Black Knights have just 3 victories against the Falcons overall since I myself entered the Military Academy way back in 1991.

The Army Black Knights
This is the first time in recent memory in which the Black Knights have a team that is objectively equal in talent with the team out at Air Force.  For better or worse, most of America’s best academy-minded high school football players had historically chosen to Aim High up until the start of the Monken Era.  But last year’s Army-Navy Game changed perceptions nationally.  Army got a rare recruiting win in the game’s aftermath at the same time that Air Force graduated a ton of talent on defense and would-be pro prospect WR Jalen Robinette on offense.  Today’s high schoolers want to play in the big game in Philadelphia, and who can blame them?  At the same time, QB Ahmad Bradshaw has entered his firstie season alongside a solid crop of cow and yearling fullbacks and slotbacks and an experienced offensive line.  
Could this be the year?
Well, it could be.
Despite the bye week, Army remains 2nd overall in rushing with 362.1 yards/game.  Bradshaw leads the way with 867 yards on 119 carries, yielding an impressive 7.3 yards/carry with just under 15 carries per game.  The fullbacks as a unit have done more work, though.  As a group, Army’s top four fullbacks have carried 221 times for 1,198 yards, an average 5.4 yards/carry.  That is outstanding.  FB Darnell Woolfolk leads the group with 73 carries and 6.1 yards/carry, but he is by no means the only back who’s seen good production, and he has just 2 more carries on the season than does FB Andy Davidson.  Amongst slotbacks, Kell Walker leads the way.  He has 54 carries for 471 yards or 8.7 yards/carry.  That’s notably down a bit since the Temple game, during which Walker and Bradshaw both got stuffed repeatedly, leaving Army either churning tough yards between the tackles or else trying to throw down the field.
But though the ground attack struggled against the Owls, Army’s last game marked something of a renaissance for the passing game.  The team remains last in the FBS in passing at 33.3 yards/game, but Bradshaw went 3/5 for 74 yards against the Owls with a drop and a pass thrown away to avoid taking a sack.  Moreover, Army actually has receiving statistics now.  SB Kell Walker leads all receivers with 4 catches for 69 yards (17.3 yards/catch), while fully four Black Knights have more than one catch, and two – SB Jordan Asberry and WR Jermaine Adams – have touchdown catches.
The one area where the Black Knights have struggled this season has been on defense between the 20s.  Inside LBs Cole Christiansen and James Nachtigal have improved tremendously since the start of the season and are slowly coming to match the play of outside/rush LBs Kenneth Brinson and Alex Aukerman.  But Army’s young secondary has struggled at times, particularly since S Rhyan England got hurt.  They’ve played well enough in goal-line and short-yardage situations, but the back four have not been great in run support on long fields, and they’ve given up a lot of 3rd-and-long completions that have kept opposing drives alive.  As of this writing, Army has allowed fully 176.5 yards rushing/game versus against just 203.3 yards passing.  Army has given up a whopping 1,412 yards rushing on just 256 carries, yielding an average of 5.5 yards allowed/carry with 13 rushing touchdowns.  None of that is very good.  It puts them at 76th in the FBS as a rushing defense but would rank lower if we measured on a per-carry basis rather than on a yards/game basis.  This week in particular, Army will need to get that average/carry back under control.
As I’ve said many times previously, though, it’s the points that matter, not the yards, and the Black Knights have been much better in short yardage situations.  Temple and Eastern Michigan both scored long touchdowns against Army but got stuffed inside the 10 when it mattered late in games.  With that, Army’s defense is allowing just 21.3 points/game overall, good for 36th overall in the FBS.
As a final note, Army’s kicking game appears much improved since P Zack Potter became the team’s game day holder.  Army has not missed a field goal or extra point since Potter started holding, and their coverage teams have been consistently good all season.
The Air Force Falcons
Still the Blue Falcons...
Air Force has played a broadly similar brand of football compared to Army but against a tougher schedule with often disappointing results.  The Falcons opened with a big win against FCS VMI, lost respectably to #7 Michigan, lost a close game to #22 SDSU, got beat badly following an epic comeback by New Mexico State, and then lost a shoot-out at Navy.  Since Navy, though, they’ve turned it around.  The Zoomies won at home against UNLV, on the road against Nevada, and on the road again at Colorado State.  After a slow start, Air Force currently sits at 4-4.  They’ve scored a lot of points, but until the CSU game, they’d also given up a lot of points and – crucially – yards rushing, turning many of their games into shootouts.
The good news for Air Force is that QB Arion Worthman remains a terrific player.  I mean, he is truly outstanding.  For the most part, he personally has been able to keep them in games, even when their young defense has failed to perform.  On the season, Worthman is 38/76 passing (50%) for 830 yards, 9 touchdowns, and just 3 interceptions.  He’s also carried 188 times for 759 yards (4.0 yards/carry) and scored 13 rushing touchdowns.  That is very good work.  Worthman is not dominating his offense the way that QB Zack Abey dominates Navy’s, but he’s got a ton of speed, and he does a substantially better job distributing the ball.  
Tellingly, it’s FB Timothy McVey who really moves the chains.  McVey has just 93 carries, but he’s taken them for 612 yards (6.6 yards/carry).  Similarly, Air Force doesn’t have any receivers with the kind of gaudy numbers that Robinette put up last year, but their top five wide-outs all average more than 20 yards per catch, and WR Ronald Cleveland has 7 catches for an unbelievable 201 yards (28.7 yards/catch!) and 2 touchdowns.  Defenses are selling out to stop the Falcons’ ground attack, and that’s leaving big plays down the field.  Granted, a 50% completion percentage isn’t ideal, but as we’ve seen with the Black Knights, a triple-option passing attack doesn’t have to be super-efficient to make a big impact in games.  
Air Force’s offense is a potent machine.  They stand 3rd in the nation in rushing with 350.4 yards/game and 19th in scoring with an outstanding 38.3 points/game.  Even in games that the Zoomies have lost, they’ve often hung gaudy numbers on the scoreboard.
Air Force’s problem to date has been its inexperience on defense, especially in the running game.  On the season, the Falcons’ defense has allowed 1,855 yards rushing on 291 carries (6.37 yards/carry -- ouch!) with 21 rushing touchdowns.  That works out to a distinctly suboptimal 231.9 yards rushing/game, good for 118th of 130 FBS teams.  Granted, some of this is down to opponents.  Among others, the Zoomies have faced Navy and NMSU, both top tier rushing offenses.  In the Navy game especially, the Falcons let SB Malcolm Perry and Abey both get outside for exceptionally long runs.  The Mids got up 28-10 in the 2nd quarter before Worthman and company came storming back to make the game a 48-45 shootout.  For a game featuring two triple-option offenses, Navy-Air Force looked almost like it belonged in the Arena League.
But with the exception of their game against Colorado State, that’s kind of how the Falcons’ season has gone.  Air Force currently stands 100th overall in scoring defense, allowing a not-impressive 32.6 points per game overall.  Given their typical time-of-possession advantage, that’s really a lot of points allowed.  If their offense wasn’t playing absolutely lights-out, the Falcons would have been dead and buried months ago.
It’s worth noting, however, that the Falcons’ defense was much better against CSU.  The Rams scored 28 points in the first half to keep Saturday’s game tied heading into halftime, but Air Force’s extreme time-of-possession advantage proved decisive.  The Falcons got up late and then forced multiple interceptions, turning what should have been a close game into a 45-28 rout.  Indeed, Air Force’s pass defense has been good by any measure.  They’re allowing just 162.8 yards/game passing.  That would be outstanding if they weren’t getting gashed so badly on the ground.  Against an air attack like the Rams’, however, it was more than enough to give the Falcons the win.
The Matchup
Air Force has been in a bunch of offensive-minded track meets this season, and Saturday’s game promises to be more of the same.  In the past, the Falcons have featured the most varied, most pass-heavy of the service academy offenses, but that’s less true this year.  In the games that they’ve won, Air Force has stolen a page from Army’s playbook, pounding the rock and dominating time-of-possession in order to keep more potent offenses on the sidelines.  Army and Air Force will both look to control the clock that way this weekend, leading to what is very likely going to be a short, brutally physical contest.  The winning team will almost certainly throw fewer passes.
Army P(Wins) vs. its schedule: Air Force Week.
The winning team will also make fewer mistakes, run more consistently productive drives, and perhaps create a decisive turnover.  Air Force has shown that it can score when it has to, but Army has consistently found ways to win, even when it hasn’t always gotten every possible break on the field.  I like Army’s chances to get a few more stops against the Falcons’ triple-option rushing attack, especially in short yardage situations.  However, as we saw last year at Michie, Worthman is an exceptional playmaker who can extend plays and make accurate throws outside of structure.  
Last year, it was these throws on the run that made the difference.  Army’s linebackers simply could not close in time to disrupt the Air Force passing game.  This year, Army is going to have to match the Falcons’ offensive output if it wants to win.  As they have these past few weeks, the Black Knights will need to make one more play than the opposition to take victory in what is going to be a close, hard fought game.
Final Thoughts
The betting line opened at Air Force (-6) but has since moved even further in the Zoomies’ direction.  As of this writing, most places are offering Army (+7.5) with Oddsshark’s computer model predicting a final score of Army 32.6, Air Force 33.7.  So the official prediction is that Air Force wins but that Army covers.  The over/under currently sits at 61.5.
It’s tough to argue with any of that, honestly.  This year’s Army Team has performed better and more consistently than last year’s team, but they don’t yet have the kind of signature wins that they got in 2016 against Temple, Wake Forest, and Navy.  Add in the problems that Army has seen playing at Air Force and their problems defensively against struggling offenses, and well, the Black Knights are in a spot where they need to prove it to have folks start believing in them nationally.
That’s okay.  As Rick Flair says, “To be the man, you’ve got to beat the man.” 
Air Force has owned the Commander-in-Chief series since the 1970s, and if Army wants to prove that it’s truly turned the corner, it’s going to have to go to Air Force and win.  Similarly, we’ll know that these Black Knights are different and better than past iterations if they find a way to beat Duke at home two weeks from now.  As overall benchmarks of the team’s progress, these two games will tell us a lot.
Army will wear the 4th Infantry Division patch this weekend.  Kickoff will be at 3:30 pm on the CBS Sports Network.

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