Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Army Football Preview: Armed Forces Bowl

Though a lot of Army fans expressed disappointment when the team committed to the Armed Forces Bowl (AFB) back in October, the truth is that things have worked out beautifully for the Black Knights.  This year’s AFB features two good teams, both with something to prove.  San Diego State (SDSU) went 10-2 this year and set its sights on a New Year’s Six bowl, but its hopes were dashed when Ohio State knocked Wisconsin out of the College Football Playoff, pushing pretty much everybody else in the nation down a spot.  By the time the smoke cleared, SDSU was headed to Amon Carter Stadium in Ft. Worth, Texas, to face Army.  
By comparison, the Black Knights of the Hudson sit at 9-3, own the Commander-in-Chief’s trophy for the first time in a very long time, and would very much like to find a way to establish themselves as a legitimate national-level program after decades removed from the spotlight.  Depending on how the rest of this year’s bowl season shakes out, the winner of this contest could very easily find its way into college football’s Top 25.  For Army, that’s the program’s last unfulfilled goal in an otherwise magnificent season.

The Army Black Knights
QB Ahmad Bradshaw currently sits just 21 yards from the all-academy single season rushing record, currently held by Navy’s Napoleon McCallum.  McCallum rushed for 1,587 yards way back in 1983.  Bradshaw and company would obviously like to put up a new record, and beyond that, I expect that the nation’s leading offensive line by rushing yards would like to close out their season—and in several cases, their collegiate careers—on a better note than the measly 221 yards they produced in the snowstorm against Navy.  In the Navy game, Army’s vaunted O-Line allowed significant penetration by the Mids’ defensive interior, resulting in several critical offensive 3-and-outs.  The Fullback Dive and the Quarterback Follow have been staple plays for the offense this season, but neither got much traction against the Mids until Army hit a pass to one of its fullbacks early in the final quarter.  They Army started running Bradshaw out to the right behind mauling T Brett Toth, the Dive finally opened up, and Army got the offense moving and won the game.
On defense, Army did just enough against a legitimate speed rusher.  Navy succeeded in creating chaos by running QB Malcolm Perry out of a spread look, especially early, but once Army adapted, they were much more successful—at least when they were able to stay disciplined and keep Perry contained.  Army got decent penetration, too, but they were often not able to get Perry to the ground behind the line, and they let him scramble out of entirely too many busted plays.  All of which is relevant this week because the Black Knights face yet another speed rusher with excellent power and burst.  
Of note, Army’s goal line defense held up well again in the Navy game.  They gave up a long touchdown to Perry, but they forced two field goals once the Mids got into the Red Zone.  Army’s 20.9 points allowed/game (28th) remains arguably the team’s most significant statistic.  Though they continue to struggle with speed out in space, this Army defense has been very good in short yardage and goal line situations all year.
While we’re talking about the defense, it’s worth noting that firstie S Rhyan England went out of the Navy game with a knee injury, and at least on TV, they never noted when he came back.  S Max Regan played well in relief, but if England is out for the bowl game, it certainly won’t help the Black Knights’ cause.
Beyond that, Army’s kicking woes have returned in full.  K Blake Wilson missed a 30-yard field goal that would ultimately have given the Black Knights a crucial 4-point lead following that late touchdown, and he shanked his last kickoff out of bounds as well.  The conditions no doubt had something to do with this, but Army is going to need to do better to continue improving.  That said, it’s probably too late to hope that they can do better this year.

The San Diego State Aztecs
SDSU will be by far and away the best team that Army has faced since its early season matchup at Ohio State.  The Aztecs have wins against UC Davis, Arizona State, PAC-12 runner-up #13 Stanford (!), Air Force, MAC runner-up Northern Illinois, UNLV, Hawaii, San Jose State, Nevada, and rushing powerhouse New Mexico State.  They lost late season contests to Boise State and Fresno State, however, and neither of those games was particularly close.  
The Aztec offense famously features the nation’s leading rusher, RB Rashaad Penny, who has 2,027 yards and 19 touchdowns on just 275 carries (7.4 yards/carry) while sharing the backfield with RB Juwan Washington (122 carries, 715 yards, 7 touchdowns, 5.9 yards/carry).  Those guys together make this a dynamic offense, and although QB Christian Chapman only throws the ball on about 30% of the Aztecs’ offensive snaps, he’s been very efficient.  On the year, Chapman is 140/233 for 1,848 yards (60.1%) with a whopping 13 touchdowns against just 3 interceptions.  That is a truly devastating complement alongside SDSU’s power running game, especially in the Red Zone.

Bottom line, SDSU is trying to do something very similar to what Army tries to do, but they do it a little better than Army does it.  We see this dynamic play out in almost every statistic.

Team Stats
Points Allowed/Game
Yards Passing
Yards Rushing
Rush Yards Allowed/Game
Yards Allowed/Rush
Every stat is similar save yards allowed/rush, which skews heavily in favor of SDSU.  Granted, this is a season’s worth of data, and Army’s rushing defense has allowed a lot fewer yards/rush since getting England and CB Elijah Riley back (just 2.9 yards/rush in November), but SDSU’s defense has improved over the season as well.  The Aztecs have given up just less than 2.1 yards/carry over that same timeframe.  Again, the comparison doesn’t bode particularly well for the Black Knights. 
Overall, this looks to be a tough matchup against a team that appears particularly well-suited to stopping the Black Knights from doing what they do best.
Critical Matchups
P(Wins) Comparison: Army vs. its schedule -- Armed Forces Bowl
The obvious issue here is on offense.  If Army can consistently keep the chains moving and own time-of-possession, they ought to have a legitimate shot at containing Penny and pacing SDSU’s offensive output.  Air Force found some running room against the Aztecs using the Fullback Dive and the Option Pitch on the perimeter, and that allowed them to run up a lead in a monsoon game that was ultimately halted by lightning.  Alas, the Aztecs regrouped during the break and handed the Falcons their ass when play resumed.  Still, Army has run on pretty much everybody this season, though they may also have to throw some in this particular game, like they did against Temple, to keep San Diego State’s defense honest.
Similarly, if the Black Knights can prevent Rashaad Penny from burning them for too many big plays, their goal line defense ought to give them a chance to keep the score close.
S&P+ Comparison.  Stats via Football Outsiders (12/2/17).
Theoretically, these teams ought to be fairly evenly matched.  ESPN’s FPI and Football Outsiders’ S&P+ both make this a bit more than a 3-point game.  However, it looks like a tough matchup in its particulars because of SDSU’s rushing defense.
Final Thoughts
The line opened at 6, but it’s since moved to favor SDSU to about a touchdown.   Oddsshark’s model gives the Aztecs an 11-point edge, predicting a final score of SDSU 35.2, Army 24.4.  The Over/Under is 46.5 with the consensus going Under.
I’ll take it.  This Army team absolutely plays its best when no one thinks it can win.  That’s been true for the past two years.
For what it’s worth, I grew up swimming at SDSU’s competition pool, back when it was a modest six-lane facility set on a hill overlooking the water.  I remember it being windy as all Hell, but I put up some decent times at a few regionally important swim meets back in the day, and I remember the place fondly.  Still, I can only imagine that they’ve upgraded their facilities since my high school glory days.
ESPN is broadcasting this game.  Kickoff is scheduled for 3:30.
Go Army!  Beat San Diego State!!!

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