Saturday, September 1, 2018

Quick Thoughts: Army at Duke

Climb down off the ledge, Army fans.  Trust me, no one was more disappointed by last night's contest than I was, but it's not as bad as it looks.  Really, there are some positives here--along with a few basic takeaways.

1. There is a reason why most serious college football teams try to schedule an FCS opponent at home in Week 1.  We saw it last night.  This Army football team is younger than I think we gave them credit for being, especially on offense.  They had some shit to shake out, and in the course of the shake-out, they got down 17-0 heading into halftime.  Now, they also lost the second half 17-14, but the game was actually closer than it looked minus those turnovers.  They also had 7 penalties for 69 yards.  Some of those were absolute killers.

The Black Knights had a chance against Duke, but they needed to be perfect, and it's asking a lot to be perfect on the road in Week 1.

2. More concerning is that Army couldn't force a punt.  They did okay against the inside runs, but they had no answer for RB Britton Brown's speed on the outside.  They frequently had guys in position to make tackles, but Brown was shaking dudes all night with that nasty stutter step, and if you really want to know why Army lost, that's the biggest reason.  It's not so much that they were missing tackles as that they were having trouble squaring up on superior athletes.  The same was true covering WR T.J. Rahming down the field.  Rahming also killed it with a rocket sweep outside once, too.
This isn't a disaster if you don't fumble five times.  Via ESPN.
In all, Duke ran 35 times for 184 yards (5.3 yards/carry).  That's only 13 more yards than they gained on the ground at Michie in November last year, but last year, Duke made some mistakes.  This year, Army made the mistakes.

3. It makes a HUGE difference when QB Daniel Jones is healthy.  He was nicked coming into last November's game.  He looked great last night.  He was 13/17 passing (76%) for 197 yards.  He also carried 10 times for 43 yards.

4. I've seen a lot of folks complaining that Army threw the ball too much.  This is wrong.  Hopkins actually threw very well.  He was 10/21 for 197 yards and a touchdown.  He got victimized by at least one drop, on a 3rd down by WR Glen Coates, and he threw what should have been a pick on a slant to Walker late in the game.  Other than that, though, his passing was pretty much the only thing that kept Army in the game.

Also: down by 17 in the second half, Army had to throw.  Really, it's better to throw and try to come back and win than to stick stubbornly with the triple-option and maybe cover but definitely lose.  Army went for the win, and that's good, even though they didn't get it.

It's worth remembering that the Black Knights closed the deficit to within 10 with a quick drive in the 3rd quarter, and if they'd forced a punt, they'd have had a shot to turn things around.  Don't blame Hopkins for that.  Blame the defense for giving up 5.3 yards/carry when the team needed a 3-and-out.

5. All-ACC LB Joe Giles-Harris single-handedly destroyed the fullback dive.  In particular, he keyed on FB Darnell Woolfolk.  Army's best drive by far was the one where Giles-Harris was in the locker room.  This was not a coincidence.

6.  Duke's secondary played very well against the option pitch and the rocket sweep.  This put the game squarely in Hopkins' hands.  We saw it all night.  In the first half, I didn't think OC Brent Davis trusted Hopkins to run the ball, though.  There were too many pitch plays and too much wildcat to Kell Walker.  They even threw on 3rd-and-5 in plus territory.

In the second half, though, they didn't have a choice.

I thought Hopkins ran well once they finally put the ball in his hands.  He wound up with 16 carries for 37 yards out of Army's 47 total offensive carries.  That includes one monster sack where he lost about 15 yards.  With Duke keying on the dive and mostly taking away the pitch, Hopkins's running off-tackle was pretty much the whole offense in the second half.  Plus, he hit that one beautiful pass to the tight end off play-action.  They needed that one.

Guys.  Hopkins throws a nice ball.  He's the total package, run and throw.  Let's give him some time to grow into the position, yeah?  It was his first start on the road against one of the best defenses in the country.  That's not an easy ask.  Army's offense looked ugly against these guys last year, too.  Look at the stats.  But Army blocked a punt last year, and they didn't fumble, and that was your ballgame. 

Last night, Army couldn't even force a punt.

7. A couple of important yearlings played well.  Backup QB Cam Thomas came in twice when Hopkins lost his helmet, causing me to yell, "Buckle your chinstrap!" at my TV.  Longtime readers will know that I was low-key looking for Thomas to win the starter's job and potentially give Army a three-year starter at quarterback.  That didn't happen, but I still think Thomas will be an important potential contributor down the line.

Anyway, Thomas looked really good running the offense against a very stout defense.  He had just 1 carry, but it went for 4 yards, and both of his plays went for plus-yardage on a night when that was not necessarily the norm.

Honestly, I think I've seen enough of Kell Walker in the wildcat at quarterback.  I could go for an every-third-series deal with Thomas like they did with Chris Carter a couple of years ago, though.  This being a triple-option offense, it's highly likely that Thomas is gonna have to start eventually, especially if Hopkins keeps carrying 30% of the time like he (eventually) did last night.

8. The other yearling who played really well was WR Cam Harrison.  In fact, Harrison has become Army's best receiver.

Also: I'm still looking for one of the new plebes to break into the starting wide receiver rotation sooner rather than later.  Army could've used some of that height last night.

9. Army placekicking remains an ongoing disaster.  Didn't these guys recruit, like, 10 kickers a couple of years ago?  I don't get it.

10. I had about 30 people over to the house last night for a party we called Sports Bar on the Back Deck.  We set up three TVs and showed all three games--Syracuse at Western Michigan, Army, and Utah State at Michigan State--using the power of Chromecast.

We actually ran out of TVs.  I had to put Utah State on my wife's 22" computer monitor running off her laptop.

The party was a huge success despite the score.  Folks had fun, and we could've easily fed a small village with the amount of food that showed up.  I made chicken legs, sausages, and turkey sliders on two grills operating in parallel, and folks brought stuff, too.  

As you're reading this, think of me writing it with a hangover.  You're welcome.  

Seriously, dudes were blowing up my phone all night last night.  I didn't realize how many folks get their Army news primarily from this blog, but everyone hit me up last night to talk.

It's gonna be okay, fellas.  I mean, I'm sad, too, but it's just one game.  Army could lose to Oklahoma and still have a reasonable shot at a 10-win season.  And if they only win 9 this year...?  We can live with that, right?

Oh by the way, Oklahoma's defense is probably not quite this good against the run.

11. The biggest difference between last night's game and the one at Michie last year was that the one last year happened in November.  Army needs to straighten out its pass rush, and they've got to correct the fumbles, but I also think they have a lot to build on.  A lot.  

After dropping the game at Michie last season, Duke wanted to embarrass the Black Knights like they did 3 years ago in the 44-3 game.  Without Hopkins's passing, that might've happened, too.  I mean, I like Duke HC David Cutcliffe, and I think he's a good coach, but the dude will absolutely run the score up on you, especially if he's got something to prove.  He and his team had something to prove last night.  They did; go read the coverage.  But Army had a chance.  They just couldn't get the stops they needed on defense.

As I said in the preview, they really should've swapped this game with the Lafayette game.  If we'd opened with Lafayette, then played Liberty, and then gotten into the meat of the schedule, we'd be in better shape.  But opening on the road against one of the best defenses in the ACC?  That was always gonna be a tough ask.  Seriously, no one does that, and there's a reason why.

We'll learn a lot about this Army team next week.  Liberty is not some pushover, though I think the Black Knights will be heavily favored.  If Army can take care of business and win, then okay.  But they've got to clean up the mistakes and get right.

Go Army!  Beat Liberty!!!


  1. Definitely not as bad as the score would indicate. My prediction of another blocked punt didn’t happen since we couldn’t force any punts. The running game averaged 3.6 yards per rush. That actually gets the job done, especially when you back out the sack yardage. We had some success with Holt running around the end. I’d like to see some of that with Walker. Duke was pretty good against Woolfolk, but I didn’t feel like they were as good against the other FBs.

    1. I would argue that everything you mentioned was about scheme. Duke was ready for Woolfolk in the middle & Walker on the edges, & they pretty much smoked both. Holt getting to the edge is a tendency-breaker, i.e. not the kind of thing you see on film.

      Duke was really ready for the base offense. The stuff that worked was often not that. Really, Army *had* to throw just to open up the FB Dive.

    2. This was why S.McCoy had the best yards/carry average. No film, so no expectation of what he was gonna do when he came in.

  2. Did we ever see Walker on the edge in the normal offense? I don’t remember any attempts that weren’t wildcat. Watching the game it felt like Holt was our most effective runner. But mostly from the wingback position.

    1. They ran at least one Rocket Sweep to Walker that lost yardage, and they pitched to him once off the Midline Triple-Option, and it also got smoked. Those were two that I noticed. But I was grilling during most of the game and couldn't pay particular attention to who was carrying when.