We have the whole week to ourselves now, so I should probably write something.
By most measures, this season has already been a success for Army football even with two games left to play. The fact that they actually have two games left is why. At 6-5, Army comes into the Navy game with a winning record and have already secured their first bowl berth in 14 years. Some might point to Army’s schedule as being the reason for their turnaround, and it’s true that they haven’t beaten anybody good. Probably not coincidentally, Army’s schedule is filled with teams like Eastern Michigan, Tulane, Kent State, and North Texas that once appeared on Navy’s slate, but don’t want to play the Mids anymore. Lightening the schedule load has helped to jumpstart the renaissance, but don’t let that fool you. Army is better. Simply being better, though, isn’t what the Army program has in mind. Making a bowl game is great, but to truly feel like Army is back on the right path, they have to beat Navy.
On paper, they shouldn’t. Navy is the better football team, coming into the game at 8-3 with wins over bowl-bound SMU, ECU, and Notre Dame teams. Ricky Dobbs is healthy and playing the way everyone was hoping he would over the summer. Alex Teich and Gee Gee Greene have emerged as bona fide stars. Greg Jones is a legitimate downfield threat in the passing game. Aaron Santiago, who sat out most of the first third of the season with a lingering hamstring injury, is back in the starting lineup and has been a jack of all trades, blocking, running, and catching. The defense, after seven straight games of seeing spread offenses that threw the ball all over the field, is undoubtedly looking forward to playing a running game that looks more like Georgia Southern and Air Force– their two best performances of the year. The Mids have every advantage going into Saturday’s game, but as the cliché goes, games aren’t played on paper. It isn’t hard to find Navy victories over teams that they usually lose out to in recruiting. Army isn’t as talented as Navy, but they don’t have to be to win this game.
Before the season started, I felt that Army was capable of winning 6 games against their schedule. That Army sits at 6-5 right now is no surprise. What is a bit surprising, though, is how they’ve done it. Army football for the last 5 years has looked pretty much the same: very good defense, terrible offense. Last year was no different, and with the defense returning 8 starters, this year’s team appeared destined to follow in the footsteps of its predecessors. That hasn’t been the case. The Army offense was retooled to take advantage of the Black Knights’ strengths, and the change has worked fairly well. Somewhat surprisingly, it’s the defense that has struggled at times. They’re still a top 30 unit, giving up a service-academy-best 332 yards per game. In scoring defense, though, the Black Knights fall to 55th in the country, giving up 24.64 points per game. That’s not terrible, but it’s something that has haunted Army all year. The typical Army game has them racing out to an early lead, then trying to hold in the second half. Army has outscored their opponents 257-169 through three quarters, but have been outscored 102-56 in the 4th quarter and in overtime. Army went into the 4th quarter with leads against both Temple and Rutgers only to be outscored 41-10 the rest of the way to lose both games.
We’ll get to Army’s new offense later in the week, but for now let’s take a look at what makes the defense tick.
Despite being hired as an “option coach,” Rich Ellerson has spent the bulk of his career coaching defenses, and coaching them well. His trademark is the “Double Eagle Flex” scheme that he helped make famous at Arizona. Take a look at the picture:
In most defenses, there are “levels.” The line is the first level, the linebackers the second, and the secondary the third. What the Double Eagle Flex does is scrap the “levels” concept in favor of more hybrid positions. You have defensive ends on their feet, ILBs that double as nose guards, linebackers that double as defensive backs, and linemen aligned to force double-teams by the offensive line. By doing this, the defense attempts to have its cake and eat it too, especially against the run. It looks like there’s room to run up the middle, but the ILBs can easily step up to fill the gaps. But if you run outside, those ILBs are far enough off the line of scrimmage that they can pursue inside-out without getting tangled up with the offensive line. And when it works, that’s exactly what happens:
The Air Force game plan was dedicated, then, to handling Army’s inside-out pursuit. Air Force doesn’t run the same offense as Navy, but they do things similarly enough that you can get a feel for how the Mids might attack the Army defense. Surprisingly, Air Force ran very little triple option against Army. To counter the inside-out pursuit of Army’s linebackers, the Falcons ran a lot of double option, using the fullback as a lead blocker. Army’s secondary played the “wishbone” defense; cover 3, with the safety playing the pitch. It’s a defense that the Navy offense has done very well against. Air Force’s success out of their flexbone set depended on who the fullback ended up blocking. If he’d block the safety, sometimes he would get far enough into the backfield to slow the runner and allow the rest of the defense to catch up to make a play. Sometimes an Army lineman– usually Mike Gann– would fight through the double team to make a play. If he didn’t, though, Air Force would get a decent gain out of the play.
Navy probably wouldn’t have the fullback block the safety. Coach Jasper would likely use the fullback to block the scraping linebacker and have the playside slotback block the safety in this situation.
Other than the double option, Air Force tried a few other things to deal with Army’s linebackers. One was the short trap. When Air Force would motion a tight end, Army’s defense wouldn’t shift to account for the new formation. By moving the tight end and pulling the playside guard outside, Air Force simply had more blockers on the play side of the formation than Army had defenders.
One of the weaknesses of Army’s defense is that by relying on linebackers to read and react, they aren’t playing gap control. Having their eyes in the backfield makes them prone to misdirection. Air Force took advantage of this by running the zone stretch play in one direction, but sending the fullback to block in the other direction. The linebacker would follow the fullback, thinking that was the direction of the play. Instead, the tailback followed the line and ran right where the ILB used to be.
Air Force also capitalized on misdirection in the passing game with two long TD passes. Navy was able to do that against Army last year too, but had plays called back due to penalties. The passing game might be a big part of the Navy game plan. One of the weaknesses of the Double Eagle Flex, and one of the reasons you don’t see it very much in the college game, is that it’s not the best way to defend against spread offenses. It makes sense, if you think about it. A defense that’s based on showing an 8-man front and pursuing from the inside-out is going to have a hard time stopping offenses designed to get the ball to playmakers in space as quickly as possible. Linebackers can’t run outside faster than the quarterback can throw the ball there. The short passing game is one way Coach Jasper can take advantage of this.
Army won’t necessarily play the same way against Navy as they did against Air Force. In fact, they’ll probably do things a bit differently. That was the case last year, when Army came out with a different game plan against VMI than they did against the Mids despite both teams using spread option offenses. Even if the tactics are different, though, the Black Knights aren’t going to stray from their base defense. They’re still going to come at Navy with a different look than what they’re used to seeing. In that sense, having three weeks between games probably helps Navy more than it does Army. The built-in advantage that Army gets from teams having to prepare for an unusual defense is diminished when they have so much time to practice for it.