Man, is it time for Army already? It doesn’t feel all that long ago that I was wondering what the heck I was going to write about Towson after spending all summer talking about the Alternative Service Option. Now here we are in December, rolling into the Game Of Games with a 7-4 record and making plans to head to RFK for yet another bowl game. Time flies when you’re having fun, I suppose. But if that’s the case, then August probably feels like a long, long time ago for West Point. After the emotional, controversy-filled offseason that saw the Alternative Service Option come and go, Army fans had to view the coming season as sweet relief. For once, there was cause for optimism on the banks of the Hudson. Yes, after a “defensive scrimmage” for a spring game that came after a double-secret spring practice that came after a double-secret “coaches’ retreat” meant to devise a new offensive scheme, word leaked that the option– the mighty, all-powerful, cure-for-what-ails-ya option– would be returning to Army.
Or so they thought, anyway. I’d like to tell a little story. Back in my midshipman glory days, some friends & I were sitting in the little slice of paradise known as deck 6-4 in Bancroft Hall and discussing high school football. One guy started telling us about his old coach. He told us about one game in particular, where his coach kept calling for the same play over and over again. After running it five times in a row, the coach called timeout. After gathering the team around him, the coach said, “OK, let get out there and run that play again. They’ll NEVER expect us to run in six times in a row!” That story more or less captures the essence of Army’s “option” offense. For the most part, the options end when the play is called in the huddle. When news broke on Tuesday that Army QB Chip Bowden suffered an ankle injury in practice, I wondered, “OH NO! NOW WHO WILL HAND THE BALL OFF TO COLLIN MOONEY???”
(Bowden, despite tweaking his ankle, is expected to start anyway.)
Indeed, the triple option at Army means offensive coordinator Tim Walsh deciding if he should call Mooney left, Mooney right, or Mooney up the middle. As predictable as the offense is, the fact that Mooney has been so productive this year is a real testament to his ability, and a credit to the line blocking for him. Before the season I mocked Army defensive coordinator John Mumford (deservedly so) for calling Mooney “probably better than any Navy fullback we’ve ever faced.” But to Mumford’s credit, Mooney has played one hell of a season. Another 54 yards, and he’ll have Army’s single-season rushing record. He’s 11th in the nation in rushing with over 1,200 yards despite everyone in the building knowing that he’s going to get the ball on almost every play.
This wasn’t Stan Brock’s design going into the season. Army started the year trying to run an actual option offense. It wasn’t Navy’s spread option; it actually resembled the wishbone derivatives run by Fisher DeBerry’s early Air Force teams. No matter what it was, it didn’t work. Quarterback play was a large part of the problem; not surprisingly, neither Bowden nor Carson Williams were very proficient in the offense after only one offseason running it. Bowden took over for Williams as the starter since, if neither guy is all that great running the offense, you might as well play the faster guy who might be able to break a long run here or there. But more than just the play of the quarterback, Army has had to make a pretty tough realization. It’s been a long-held belief by Army fans (and coaches too, judging by comments in recent years) that the Black Knights have pretty much the same talent level as Navy. The only thing they lacked, according to this theory, was the right scheme to fit that talent. Hence the preseason optimism; with Navy-like talent and a Navy-like scheme, maybe they would see Navy-like results. Unfortunately for those who drank the Kool-Aid, that hasn’t proven to be the case. Once Army started running an offense that looked a little like Navy’s, it was a lot easier to compare the talent between the two service academies. The results weren’t good for the Brave Ol’ Army Team. When it comes to overall team speed, they just don’t measure up.
The quarterbacks’ struggles take a lot of the option game off the table, and the lack of outside speed makes the perimeter rushing game less effective. So instead of trying to do something they couldn’t, Army’s coaches decided to focus on something they did well. That meant using strong offensive linemen and a bruising fullback to push the ball up the other team’s gut. It’s a role in which Mooney has flourished, and he almost single-handedly is responsible for Army’s 3 wins this season. That makes Nate Frazier the man of the hour for Navy’s defense. This is his Everest. Army is going to come right at him. Other than whatever tricks Stan Brock has up his sleeve, they can’t do much else. The last time this kind of a challenge was placed on Navy’s defensive line, Frazier, Nechak, and Tuani responded with a brilliant effort against Notre Dame. Hopefully they will do the same tomorrow.
For the Mids, there’s more uncertainty surrounding this Army-Navy game than there has been in years. The central issue for the Blue & Gold is who will start the game at quarterback. Ricky Dobbs started last week against Northern Illinois, and after some nervous mistakes on the first drive, he settled down to run the offense well enough to win. But according to Coach Niumat, Kaipo has been practicing all week and looking as good as he did back in the spring. But he hasn’t played in a month, and has only played one full game all year (Rutgers back in September). Do you go with the hot hand, or the seasoned veteran? Tony D’Amato went with Cap Rooney over Willie Beamen in the big playoff game, and that’s what I think Niumat will do–and should do– here. Most of you read Wagner’s blog too, and you probably are big fans of the weekly videos he puts out each Wednesday. In this week’s video, Wags feels that Navy should go with Dobbs. If this was any other game, I might entertain the thought. But don’t underestimate how big Army-Navy is. The last sophomore to start the Army-Navy game was none other than Kaipo himself in 2006. By his own admission, he was a nervous wreck and played a horrible game. This is the same guy who went into South Bend and actually waved his arms to get Notre Dame fans to make more noise, being so confident in his ability to pick up a first down. Kaipo is one cool customer, and even he struggled. And I’m sure nobody needs to be reminded of what happened in Charlie Weatherbie’s first Army-Navy game. Kaipo might be rusty, and who knows how healthy he is, but he’s the most experienced QB and most likely to keep his calm. I expect him to go as long his body can take it.
What he’ll be going against is a defense that has performed as well as any other against the Navy offense over the last few years. The first four Army-Navy games under Paul Johnson were characterized by the Navy offense running wild. In 2006, Kaipo had a rough game and the offense didn’t play as well. Last year Kaipo was fine, but despite the 38-3 score, all you heard on CBS was how well Army defended against the Mids. Navy fans were left wondering if Army found the magic formula to finally slow down Paul Johnson’s offense. Don’t worry, they haven’t. Army lined up with the same 4-3 look that Pitt and Notre Dame used this year.
Just like those two teams, Army focused on interfering with the playside tackle, freeing up their middle linebacker and allowing him to flow to the ball. I put two plays on this first clip here. On the first play, you can see the DE lined up outside the tackle and puching him away from the MLB, back towards the middle of the line. The defensive end can do this because the tackle is usually supposed to release inside of him on his way to the linebacker. One of the adjustments you’ll see the coaches make is to have the tackle release outside instead. It makes for a tougher read for the quarterback, but it keeps the tackle from getting caught in the pile. Just in case any of you think I’m full of crap when I tell you that defenses actively try to interfere with the tackle, watch the second play. Josh Meek releases outside of Army’s DE, but actually gets grabbed and pulled from behind to keep him from blocking the MLB.
Now, there are other adjustments you can make. What Coach Johnson did was run the double option, making the fullback a blocker and assigning him to the middle linebacker.
That wasn’t the only thing that Army was doing, though. The defense also did a good job of mixing in different reads to try to confuse Kaipo. Usually the defensive end was giving Kaipo a “keep” read when he turned to push the tackle towards the middle of the line. But sometimes, the DE faked going after the tackle, using his arms to push him instead of driving into him, then stepping upfield and into the quarterback’s path. It’s sort of like a pitcher with a good pickoff move to first base. This is called a mesh charge. The quarterback reads keep, but gets blown up in the backfield. It’s generally considered the toughest read for a QB to make in this offense, and it gave Kaipo fits at times:
When you get in the habit of reacting to one particular read, it can throw you off when the DE fakes that one read and does something else. Fortunately, Kaipo is quick to adjust and caught on to what Army was doing. The correct read on a mesh charge is to give to the fullback, and Kaipo made that read as the game wore on:
One other adjustment that PJ made to the mesh charge is similar to what we saw against Northern Illinois. Instead of optioning off of the DE, PJ put the tackle on him and called a designed handoff to the fullback. When the DE stepped upfield, he took himself out of the play. A great block by Reggie Campbell on the middle linebacker, and you have a nice gain:
These were good adjustments by Coach Johnson to keep the chains moving, but none of them were really designed to hit the home run. Go back through the video again and look at how aggressive Army was playing. The middle linebacker didn’t just flow to the ball, he really overpursued. Army’s secondary virtually disregarded the possibility of the pass, except in 3rd & long situations. These are usually the times when PJ unleashes the HAMMER OF THOR and calls play-action or a reverse that goes for 6. But he didn’t here. With huge defensive plays keeping Army out of the end zone, and huge special teams plays putting Navy into the end zone, he didn’t have to. Coach Johnson isn’t the kind of guy to tip his hand, especially with a team he’s going to face every year. If he can beat a team just by running simple stuff and winning field position, he will. That way, opposing coaches think their defensive scheme worked, and will try it again the next year. And that’s when you can unleash the mental Manhattan Project on them and blow them away.
Of course, none of this matters without execution, and that’s what Saturday’s game is going to come down to. Even if the strategy wasn’t the best, Army didn’t make it worse with bad execution. They played well, while at times the Mids did not. That said, it was a friggin’ five-touchdown victory. If Navy executes like they’re capable of, you’ll see more of the same. If we see more mistakes and inconsistency like in the Notre Dame game, it’ll be a lot closer. Rise to the challenge, and we’ll sing last.