Part of what makes college football so great is its unique combination of the enduring with the evolving. On one hand, there are standards like traditions, storied rivalries, and beloved venues that each generation shares with its predecessors. On the other hand, there is constant flux; coaches come and go, conferences realign, and every team’s roster looks completely different every 4-5 years. Over the past few years, the Army-Navy game has exemplified this dynamic of things changing, and things staying the same. It is one of college football’s oldest and most steadfast rivalries, but recent years have featured storylines highlighting that season’s changes. Army-Navy has been broadcast nationally for more than 50 years, including the last dozen on CBS, and will continue that way until at least 2018. It has, however, been moved from the first to the second Saturday in December. Change has been a theme on the field as well. The 2007 game brought us Stan Brock’s first year at Army, along with the speculation that it might be Paul Johnson’s last year at Navy. Last season was Ken Niumatalolo’s first as the Mids’ head coach, and he faced off against Army’s new option offense. The 2009 matchup will be the series’ third straight with a new head coach on the sidelines, as Rich Ellerson is wrapping up his first season at the helm of the Army football program.
Brock was dragged kicking and screaming into running the option last year, and the team limped to their third consecutive 3-9 season. The thinking at West Point was that a coach more willing to commit to an option-oriented offense would be more successful. Ellerson certainly fits the bill. We all know his story by now; defensive coordinator at Hawaii at the same time Paul Johnson ran the Rainbow offense, recruited Ken Niumatalolo, became defensive coordinator at Arizona, and eventually named head coach at Cal Poly. His run at Cal Poly was very successful, led by a spread option offense that was consistently ranked at or near the top of I-AA. It’s an offense that has the Army faithful excited, and in true Army fashion, they express their excitement by taking a random shot at Navy:
“They do things out of this triple option that I’ve never seen before,” said Cantelupe, a 1996 West Point graduate and 1995 co-captain. “What he runs I think is superior to what Navy runs. Throughout college football, if you look at who is running the most advanced triple-option football, it’s Ellerson if you see the things that he is doing.”
If you say so, Jim. I’m not sure what made it more “advanced” in San Luis Obispo– maybe they wore jet-packs or something– but whatever he saw in those games has yet to materialize on the Hudson. Let’s put Army’s offensive ineptitude in perspective. Ricky Dobbs has 23 rushing touchdowns so far this year. The entire Army offense has 13. Even with a lighter schedule designed to get the team to its first bowl game since 1996, the MOST ADVANCED TRIPLE OPTION is actually generating four fewer yards per game than Stan Brock’s parade of mediocrity did in 2008. The Black Knights average a meager 16.5 points per game. They have reached the 20-point plateau all of 3 times this season, and in one of those games they needed an interception return for a touchdown to get there.
Jokes about super-advanced offenses aside, this doesn’t mean that there’s some deficiency in the Army scheme. They just don’t have players to do everything that the offense is capable of. As bad as they were last year, Army still had a workhorse of a fullback in Collin Mooney, who ran for a school-record 1,339 yards. This season, the offense lacks any real big-play threat. Of the six Army players who have at least 19 carries on the season, only one– slotback Patrick Mealy– averages more than 5 yards per carry. Of the seven Navy players with 19+ carries, only two don’t average at least that much. Ellerson’s passing game at Cal Poly centered around wide receiver Ramses Barden, a 6-6 monster who accumulated 4000+ receiving yards and 50 TDs in his collegiate career, and ran a 4.48 40-yard dash at the NFL combine before being drafted by the New York Giants. The Army passing game consists of throwing jump balls to a 6-10 converted offensive tackle. Needless to say, the whole package is a work in progress.
In some ways, the 2009 edition of the Army offense is the opposite of 2008, with the fullback position being the least productive. That doesn’t mean they don’t run between the tackles, because they do. They just do it by getting the ball to their best runners; Mealy, and plebe QB Trent Steelman. Last year, Navy was able to control the Army offense by dominating the line of scrimmage, and having safety Wyatt Middleton spy on Mooney. A similar approach might work this year, with Middleton focusing on Steelman instead. How the plebe handles his first Army-Navy game will certainly factor greatly into the outcome of the game.
Yet even with an offense that struggles mightily, Army is still just one win away from its first bowl game in 13 years. It seems impossible until you remember that Ellerson isn’t really an “option” coach. He is dedicated to bringing in coordinators who can run the spread option, but his reputation was made on the other side of the ball. As a defensive innovator, Ellerson brought to Army the same double eagle flex scheme he used with great success as the defensive coordinator at Hawaii and at Arizona, with the famous “Desert Swarm” defense of the ’90s. Army has adapted well, ranking in the top 20 in total defense, and an eye-opening 5th against the pass. Josh McNary has emerged as a star playing the DE/LB hybrid “quick” position, registering 22.5 tackles for loss this season (2nd nationally), including 12.5 sacks (3rd).
The “flex” in the double eagle flex refers to these hybrid positions. Most defenses have 3 “levels”: the line, linebackers, and secondary. Ellerson’s defense creates levels in between levels. Take a look at this picture:
The defensive ends aren’t really defensive ends, lined up instead in a 2-point stance in “hybrid” positions. The same is true for the “hybrid” middle linebacker. The line between linebacker and safety is blurred as well. So what do we have? Is it a 2-man front? A 4-man front? 5-man? Who’s going to attack the line of scrimmage? Who’s going to drop back into coverage? These are the questions that Ellerson wants the offense asking itself as he mixes his coverages and presents multiple fronts all in one.
Ellerson’s defense has been successful everywhere he’s coached. That doesn’t mean it’s without its limitations. While all these hybrid mix & match positions can be confusing, they don’t necessarily bring any real advantage against the option. Air Force slept through the first half of their game against Army, but moved 45+ yards on 4 of their 5 second-half drives to put the Black Knights away, 35-7. A month ago, VMI churned out 328 rushing yards in a 22-17 loss at Michie Stadium. The Keydets’ offensive coordinator is Brent Davis, who coached at Georgia Southern and runs a very similar spread option offense. VMI didn’t get confused by the unorthodox alignment; the blocking rules for the option are clear. The “DE” is lined up outside the B gap, and they optioned off of him:
For most of the game, Army had their free safety spy on the pitch man. There’s nothing revolutionary about that; it’s probably the most common defensive tactic used against this offense. Against VMI, all it did was either run the safety out of the play, or make him easier to block:
That long QB run was almost painfully slow. But notice how long it took the Army defense to chase the quarterback down. They’re well-coached, but they still aren’t fast. And with leading tackler Stephen Anderson out due to injury, they’re going to be even more limited.
Now, the thought might occur to you that Army showed VMI a different defense than what they plan on using against Navy. I wouldn’t rule it out, but I’m not convinced that’s the case. The defense Army used against VMI is pretty consistent with what Ellerson has done in the past. When he was at Hawaii, he was in the same conference as Air Force, who was running the wishbone. Ellerson used the safety to cover the pitch man then, too:
Expecting the play to be run to the strong side of the field, he lined up his safety there to key on the pitch. In the Navy spread, when the slotback starts in his tail motion, he essentially creates a “strong” side in the direction of the motion. That’s where the safety attacks.
At times Army switched to a more conventional-looking 3-4 alignment:
Semi-conventional, anyway, with the 5-man front. There’s still some mixing & matching between the LBs and the secondary. Even in this alignment, though, they employed the same tactics.
There are some football seasons where when we get to Army week, we ask ourselves where on earth the time went. Not this year. With 13 games on the schedule and Army-Navy coming a week later than usual, the season has felt every bit as long as it looked. Ohio State was a long, long time ago. The one sure-fire way to make the season feel even longer would be to lay an egg against Army. Navy should win this game; they’re simply the better team. But Army figured out a way to win 5 games already, and they’re trying to convince everyone of how confident they are:
Ali Villanueva: I don’t know what is going to happen. I always try to look at it by focusing on my position. I am not going to look at what the fullback is doing or the offensive line is doing. I don’t know how many catches I am going to have, I might drop all the balls, I might catch them. At the end it has to be a “W’ and that’s all that matters. They can come out and throw anything they want at us and it doesn’t matter, we are going to win the football game.
There’s no doubt that Army should feel good about themselves, coming into the game with postseason hopes still alive. But talk is cheap. Here’s to the Mids speaking softly, but carrying a big stick. Beat Army.