Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Army Football Preview: at North Texas

Save for a stumble at Tulane, Army Football has had a dream season. The sole blemish on the team’s resume is that they have yet to beat a team with a winning record, a circumstance that I’d not have bet on prior to the season. That changes this week. Army’s last two games are against bowl eligible teams with excellent offenses and strong cultures of winning.
This week, Army (8-2) travels to Apogee Stadium in Denton, Texas, to take on a familiar foe in North Texas. The Mean Green (7-3) have already clinched the C-USA West division title.  Still, I expect this to be a hard-hitting contest between two closely matched teams.  After splitting a pair of games last season, Saturday’s contest marks the rubber match before the series discontinues in 2018.

The Army Black Knights
Army’s resume looked like it was gonna be a little stronger before the season started. The team opened with a big win against Fordham, then expected to contend for the Patriot League title. They followed by beating regional rival Buffalo. But although Buffalo’s defense has been better this season, QB Tyree Jackson has struggled to stay healthy, and his offense is just not the same without him. The Black Knights then dropped competitive games to both Ohio State and Tulane before coming back to right the season against two badly struggling programs in UTEP and Rice.
Things got harder after that.  Army faced two very good defensive football teams in EMU and Temple, both of whom have badly underperformed. EMU in particular kept losing close contests, and it has really hurt the Black Knights’ strength of schedule.  Temple helped some by beating Navy and getting back to .500, but they have a tough matchup with Central Florida this week and will most likely face a do-or-die contest at Tulsa to close out their season. Army got a big win the next week against Air Force, but--again--the Zoomies shit the bed at home against Wyoming and will now have to run the table against Boise State and Utah State to get into the postseason.  Duke is in much the same situation.  Heading into Saturday's contest, the Blue Devils needed to take 2 of 3 against Army, Georgia Tech, and Wake Forest.  Now they need to run the table, and… well, that’s probably not gonna happen.
West Point's History Department dropped these posters
during Saturday's game against Duke.
All of which makes Army's game at North Texas that much more important.  The Mean Green have faced a similar schedule to Army's, and like Army, they've consistently found ways to win.  If Army wants to prove that it belongs in the Top 25, here at last is a game that might help them make that argument.
Army's offense has been terrific this year.  They've averaged more than 351 yards rushing/game (2nd), owned time of possession, and succeeded repeatedly in establishing their ground game, even against very good rushing defenses like those of Ohio State, EMU, Temple, and Duke.  Duke limited the Black Knights to something like 225 yards on the ground, knocking them out of the top rushing spot nationally, but Army still managed to put up 21 points, and they put together a 10-minute drive in the 4th quarter to take final control of the game.  If the offense has one concern, it's that they haven’t always finished drives, with that 10-minute drive against Duke serving as a prime example.  The Black Knights got all the way down to the 2-yard line, but they then got hammered by penalties and wound up missing a field goal.  That made the game look more competitive than it had been, a phenomenon we've seen a few times already this season.
On defense, I think it makes more sense to talk about the games Army has played since getting CB Elijah Riley and S Rhyan England back.  Since then, the Black Knights have held Air Force and Duke, both very good power running teams, to less than 100 yards total rushing apiece, less than 3 yards/carry on average, and less than 260 yards of total offense. Army’s season defensive numbers don’t look great beyond scoring defense (18.6 points/game; 16th), but in their last 8 quarters, they’ve been nothing less than outstanding.
Army has gotten 2 blocked punts this season as well as good kicks and good kick coverage. Worryingly, though, they’ve missed their last 2 field goals, the latest of which got blocked. That last one in particular could easily have led to catastrophe. With that in mind, the kicking game remains a work in progress.
The North Texas Mean Green
Like Army, North Texas is coming out of a successful rebuilding period generally away from the eyes of the national media.  The Mean Green opened with a strong win against Lamar but then dropped two games in a row to SMU and Iowa, perhaps worrying fans that the team hadn't quite turned the corner the way that their 2016 finish once promised.  They followed, though, by reeling off three straight wins against UAB, Southern Miss, and UTSA before getting walloped 69-31 on the road at FAU.  Since then, the Mean Green have been perfect.  They won close games against Old Dominion and La. Tech and then whupped up on bottom feeder UTEP this past Saturday.  They now stand 7-3, having clinched a spot in the C-USA Championship Game.

North Texas features a truly elite offense, but they've given up some points, even in games that they've won.  As a team, they average 284.6 yards passing/game (24th) and 191.6 yards rushing (42nd).  That’s excellent.  More impressive is their offensive efficiency.  The Mean Green average a whopping 36.8 points/game (22nd).  QB Mason Fine is 224/352 passing (63.6%) for 2,812 yards and 22 touchdowns against just 9 interceptions.  On the rushing side, RB Jeffrey Wilson has been very impressive carrying the load.  He has 169 carries for 1,143 yards (6.8 yards/carry!) and a very respectable 14 touchdowns.

However, North Texas has had to score points because they give up an astounding 33.6 points/game (107th) overall.  That is not good.  Specifically on the rushing side, they've allowed 1,715 yards and a near-calamatous 21 touchdowns on just 401 carries (4.28 yards/carry).  That's not a terrible per-carry average, but it's nearly twice as many rushing touchdowns as Army has allowed, and the Mean Green's cumulative 171.5 yards rushing allowed/game is not good at all.
Like Army, North Texas has won a lot of close games.  What they haven’t done is beat a team from a bigger, faster conference.
Though this game templates as a close contest, it’s the kind of matchup that has generally favored Army in recent years.
P(Wins) Comparison: Army vs. Opponents (N.Texas Week)
Triple-option vs. North Texas Defense.  As with the Air Force game, Army ought to win if they can sustain drives and control the flow of the game.  On paper, that looks doable. Temple and Duke both featured talented defenses that were big up front and eminently ready for Army’s particular offensive scheme. By comparison, North Texas saw the triple-option twice last year, but beyond their institutional memory, there’s little to suggest that they will present the same kind of unique challenge to Army’s ability to move the ball.  Moreover, the Mean Green have given up a lot of yards rushing this season, and in those situations, Army has generally been able to take advantage.
Army defense vs. Jeffery Wilson.  Wilson is the potential game-changer. If he gets going, Fine will have time to throw, and Army’s defense will be in for a long day.  However, if Army can bottle Wilson up and make North Texas one-dimensional, then the Black Knights ought to be able to get good pressure on the quarterback.  That will be critical against such a high-powered offense.
Football Outsiders S&P+ Comparison: Army vs. Recent Opponents
Rush linebackers vs. Mason Fine.  Fine is not as big as Duke QB Daniel Jones, but like Jones, he has good mobility, and more to the point, he throws very accurately on the run.  However, Fine has also been sacked 18 times this season. Army needs to run that number up in order to take control of this game.
Final Thoughts
Army opened as a 2.5-point road underdog, but the line has since moved to North Texas (-3). I’ve no quarrel with that, especially since North Texas has yet to lose a game at home this season.  Clearly, they a legitimate home field advantage.  It’s worth noting, though, that Army has played significantly better over the last two seasons as an underdog.  OddsShark’s computer model predicts a barnburner score of Army 32.4, North Texas 32.2.  That’s fine, I guess, but their model has consistently overpredicted Army’s offensive output all season long.
The weather should be good. Weather.Com is calling for temps in the upper-60s with partly cloudy skies and gusty winds that ought to subside as the evening progresses.
Unfortunately, this game will be broadcast on BeIN Sports.  Pre-game starts at 6:00 pm with kickoff at 6:30.  Alas, that means Donavan McNabb on color commentary.  If you don’t have BeIN Sports, you can call your local cable company or get a free one-month subscription via Fubo.Tv.  Once you have access, the BeIN Sports app works well with Chromecast or on any mobile device. That’s how I watched the Rice game, and since Sally and I have a party Saturday night, it may well be how I watch this game as well.
Army will play wear the 1st Cavalry Division patch.
Go Army!  Beat North Texas!!!

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