It’s been a busy couple of weeks for Navy fans, what with conference realignment starting again and Arizona State receiving a bid to the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl. We’ll get to all that stuff in due time. Right now, only one thing matters. You know what it is.
As service academies, Army and Navy are a novelty in college football. Comparisons between the two are inevitable, and it’s common for outside observers (and sometimes not-so-outside observers) to assume that their football programs are a lot more alike than they really are. In reality, both programs have been operating on completely different planes for the last decade, and the record reflects it as Navy has won the last 10 games in the series.
Almost as long as Navy’s win streak has been talk of Army “closing the talent gap.” It’s sort of a weird dichotomy; there are those who insist that there never was a gap, and that all Army needed was the right coaching staff. There are others who believe that maybe there was a gap in the past, but it’s closing quickly. This gap has supposedly been closing since at least 2006, according to Bobby Ross:
“We would like to get eventually to a level playing field with Navy,” Ross said. “That would be one of my biggest things in our program, to get to that point.This year, I didn’t feel they were that much better. “My personal feeling is that I think our program is closer. We were playing a lot of freshmen. We have a good (talent) base in our program right now, a good recruiting base, and we’re very solid defensively. There’s more development to be done offensively.”
That was after the 2006 game, a 26-14 Navy triumph. Considering the average margin of victory for Navy from 2002-2005, maybe it was easy to excuse the rosy outlook after a much closer game. The problem is that we’re told the same thing every. single. year. Army-Navy coverage has been dominated by this “closing the gap” narrative ever since, and it only got louder after last year’s contest. The prevailing belief is that closing the gap is some sort of inevitability, as if one program can’t possibly be that much better than the other for this long.
Except it can. Most of this gap-closing talk is based on head-to-head results between Army and Navy, but there are 11 other games in a season. If you really want to look for evidence of any gap-closing, you have to look at the whole picture. Navy went through a stretch of beating Notre Dame three times in four years, but you didn’t hear anyone talking about the Mids “closing the gap” on Notre Dame, did you? While all this gap-closing was supposedly happening from 2006-2010, Navy won 9 games three times. Army lost 9 games three times over that same stretch. If the gap was really closing, then you should see evidence of it in more than just one game.
Then 2011 happened, and Navy fell to 5-7 and missed out on a bowl game for the first time since 2002. With Army-Navy as close as it was, did we finally have the evidence of the closing gap? Well, no. Here we are a year later, with Navy on their way to a bowl game (again) while Army has nine losses (again). With that, we should be free of any “closing the gap” talk before this year’s game, right?
Ellerson believes the Air Force result proves the Army program has made progress during his four years at the helm. He believes the Black Knights have been “reeling them in and reeling them in” with regard to closing the competitive gap with the Falcons and Midshipmen. “I can’t prove it on the scoreboard, but I know we’re gaining on them,” said Ellerson, referring specifically to Navy.
“I think they have always been a little more talented, a little more skilled,” Army senior quarterback and captain Trent Steelman said. “But I don’t think there is a difference now.”
On one hand, you can’t blame these guys too much for making these comments. I’m sure these quotes are in response to direct questions about closing the gap, which have to be annoying as hell to answer every year. Besides, Coach Ellerson isn’t going to say anything to kill his players’ confidence, and there isn’t a single player worth a damn in any sport that doesn’t run out onto the field believing that he should win. On the flip side, there seems to be an element to West Point culture that borders on an inferiority complex when it comes to the Naval Academy. I don’t really mean that to sound as harsh as it does, but I can’t think of what else to call it. Why else would a coach, when talking about Collin Mooney in August of 2008, randomly decide to declare that he’s better than any of Navy’s fullbacks?
“Collin Mooney is probably better than any Navy fullback we’ve ever faced,” Army defensive coordinator John Mumford said. “Not to compliment Navy but that’s a compliment to Collin.”
Why bring up Navy at all?
Why would a former captain of the Army team decide, upon Rich Ellerson’s hiring, to instantly declare his offense as superior to Navy’s? I mean, he could have just said that he runs a good offense and we’re excited to see it, but instead we get this random shot:
“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.”
Talk about out of nowhere.
There is a chance that this complex is more for show than a reflection of what these guys really believe. Behind closed doors, you sometimes get a different story. In a letter to the Army Football Club over the offseason, Coach Ellerson had this to say about recruiting:
Our unique methodology for culling large swaths of the population to produce talented and qualified “prospects” WORKS. Focusing on “DESTINSTION” [sic] at the outset of the recruiting process focuses the effort on the men who are likely to embrace the challenges of West Point and subsequently prosper here. The process is producing only a dozen or so multiple academy recruits and we don’t do especially well with that cohort. This year we got three that received real interest from Navy or USAFA. The more encouraging trend is the number of recruits with Division one scholarship opportunities that are choosing to come and attend US-MAPS. It is a spectacular facility and having it here at West Point is a GAME CHANGER!
I’ve been saying this for years, but you no longer have to take my word for it. Navy still isn’t seeing Army very much on the recruiting trail, and even when they do, Army isn’t beating their service academy brethren for recruits head-to-head. If Army isn’t beating Navy for recruits, then the talent gap isn’t closing. It can’t be any more plain than that. (You can read the letter for yourself here: 2012 AFC Letter).
That doesn’t mean that Army hasn’t improved, though. While Rich Ellerson isn’t beating Navy for recruits, he does do a much better job of finding players that fit his system compared to his predecessors. Stan Brock was forced to run the option against his will, and none of his players were recruited with the idea that they’d be running that kind of offense. Now that he has a few years of recruiting under his belt, Ellerson has assembled an offense that is far more capable than the one he had in 2009. Trent Steelman wasn’t an Ellerson recruit, but has developed into a fine option quarterback under the tutelage of his staff. Raymond Maples isn’t the fastest player on earth, but he has more speed than other Army running backs in recent memory. Put those guys behind a capable offensive line, and all of a sudden Army has the #1 rushing offense in the nation.
Army has settled into a scheme that works well for them. They’re a little faster than they used to be, but they still aren’t fast; there’s a lot of “turn 30-yard plays into 10-yard plays” in them (I’ve lost track of the number of times Larry Dixon seemingly broke free with NOBODY around him, only to be quickly caught from behind). They make up for a lack of sheer speed by using a lot of misdirection. They run the option, then they run misdirection off of that option, then they run misdirection off of that misdirection. We’ve heard a lot this year about “eye discipline.” Any defense that doesn’t have it will have a bad day against the Army offense.
Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. We’ve seen Coach Jasper incorporate more inside counter plays this season to get the ball behind defenses being overly aggressive in outside pursuit on the option.
That play has been a staple of the Army offense for a couple of years now.
Army runs the option. Once you adjust to that, then they run that counter play. And once you adjust to that, then they counter that counter and run back the other way:
That’s a small sample of what they do, but their entire offense operates under the same principle. It’s a good scheme, and it produces a lot of yards. It doesn’t always translate to the scoreboard, though. Army is #1 in rushing offense, while Navy is only #6. Army is #41 in total offense, while Navy is #68. Yet when it comes to scoring offense, both teams are almost identical: Navy averages 25.45 points per game, while Army averages 25.27. Why don’t those yards translate into points?
One, Army can’t throw, at least not downfield anyway. None of the option-heavy teams have a lot of passing yards, but they usually do pretty well in terms of passing efficiency. Air Force, Navy, and Georgia Tech are all ranked in the top 40 in that category. Army is 116th. That’s a spot lower than New Mexico, the team that has played games without a real quarterback at times. Two, as mentioned earlier, Army just isn’t fast. The combination of those two factors means that Army is limited in their big plays. When you’re limited in your big plays, it takes more plays per drive in order to score; in scoring drives of 40 yards or more, Army averaged 9.1 plays per drive compared to Navy’s 8.2. More plays per drive means more chances to make a mistake, and Army makes them. They’re 105th in the country in red zone efficiency, and 97th in turnover margin. It doesn’t take a turnover to kill a drive, either. It could be something as simple as a penalty, a missed read, or a missed block. Army’s relative lack of big-play ability leaves them vulnerable to the law of averages.
Defensively, Army is just plain bad. Comparisons to Navy’s 2007 defense of shattered dreams wouldn’t be too far off. Even if Army doesn’t beat Navy and Air Force for recruits, they’ve had their fair share of good defensive players over the last decade. With Army’s recruiting struggles, though, depth becomes an issue; if retention slips, things get ugly very, very quickly. And they have. Army’s retention problems have left them with only three seniors expected to start on Saturday. Navy isn’t that much more experienced, with only four seniors of their own starting on defense. While the Mids are a borderline top-50 unit, though, Army is 89th, giving up 439 yards per game. Navy fans get frustrated over the Mids making opposing quarterbacks look good, but in reality they’ve done fairly well, ranking 37th in pass efficiency defense. Army, on the other hand, is 116th. While their offense might be limited in their big plays, Army’s defense gives them up on a regular basis.
Still, they’ve had their moments. There was a three-game stretch of Ball State, Air Force, and Rutgers where the Army defense played well enough to win. Against Air Force they did, and in grand fashion. In Army’s 41-21 stomping of the Falcons, the defense held Air Force to only 103 rushing yards, forced 5 turnovers, and capped off the day by returning a fumble for a touchdown. It was an eye-opening performance, and has led to a lot of optimism among the Army faithful that they’ll be able to repeat that performance against Navy. So how did the Army defense do it?
You might recall that after the FAU game, I mentioned that Coach Pelini’s defense was very similar to what Army has run in the past against the Mids. Both teams used a 3-3-5 alignment. In most defensive alignments you have two safeties, with one on each side of the formation. The safety on the play side of the formation usually comes up in run support to play the pitch, and is blocked by the playside slotback. Against FAU, there were three safeties; one on either side of the formation, and one in the middle. The middle safety followed the direction of the play. Coupled with the playside safety, that meant two safeties in run support instead of one, with the backside safety for pass defense. The playside slot can only block one of the two in run support, leaving the other one to tackle the pitch man.
This year, Coach Ellerson defended Air Force the same way. Here you can see Air Force attempting to run the toss sweep. They brought a man in motion from the other side of the field, and at the snap the formation is essentially the same as it would be when Navy runs the play. You can see Army’s 3-3-5 with two safeties in run support. One gets blocked, while the other makes the tackle.
Connor Dietz isn’t the passer that Ricky was, so Air Force tried the same outside zone approach. Somewhat surprisingly, they ended up getting physically beaten by Army’s undersized defensive line. Because the DL was going to give a pitch read no matter what, they were dedicated to shooting their gaps to get inside. That forced Air Force running backs to look for cutback lanes, but Army’s defense was disciplined enough to stay home and not overpursue.
Air Force recognized this, and attempted to beat it with a counter play by pulling a tackle to block the linebacker that was defending against the cutback. Unfortunately for Air Force, the tackle used poor technique and was beaten when the LB simply got lower:
So did Army solve the outside zone play? Not even close. Army’s last game was against another zone running team, Temple. The Owls scored 63 points while rushing for 534 yards. Army’s game plan worked better against an Air Force offensive line that averages 261 pounds than it did against a bigger, stronger Temple front. At 286 pounds per man, Navy isn’t quite as big as Temple’s 297, but they’re a lot closer to the Owls than to Air Force. Jake Zuzek is bigger than any of Temple’s linemen, and Temple even started two freshmen. The Owls were good, but not THAT good. Even if Navy doesn’t run for 500 yards, they should still be able to move the ball well enough.
That’s the problem with getting too excited about the Air Force win. The matchups are different. Sure, Army beat Air Force more soundly than Navy did, but Navy also played Air Force on the road with a pre-injury Getz. Everyone should know better than to put too much stock in the transitive property. Besides, let’s be honest: Air Force just isn’t that good. They’re a 6-6 team that lost to 2-11 UNLV and probably should have lost to Wyoming and New Mexico. I know, that’s a lot of shoulda coulda, which isn’t worth any more than the transitive property. The point is that if there was any other name on the jersey than “Air Force,” nobody would be nearly as wrapped up in that win.
The other source of Army’s optimism seems to be their strength of schedule. As Sal Interdonato tweeted earlier this week,
It’s a similar vibe to 2005, when Army entered the game on a 4-game win streak after starting the year 0-6 against a pretty tough stretch of opponents that included TCU, Boston College, Baylor, and Iowa State. There was a lot of talk before that game that Army might even be the better team, but Navy played an easier schedule. Army has certainly played some teams that were better than everyone expected at the beginning of the year, but let’s not blow things out of proportion. If you include Penn State, both teams played 6 bowl teams. Navy went 3-3 against theirs. Army went 1-5. Army did face the best teams in the MAC, but Navy played an 8-win Big Ten team, a 10-win San Jose State team, and the #1 team in the country, not to mention tacking on a win over another Big Ten team. The Mids might have looked less than impressive against FAU and Texas State, but close losses against good teams aren’t better than being able to win even when you didn’t play your best game.
The wildcard in this game is the contrast in quarterbacks, with Army’s 4-year senior starter taking on Navy’s freshman. How will the plebe handle the pressure? Even Kaipo struggled a little in his first Army game, and that’s the guy who waved his arms under center trying to get the Notre Dame crowd to get louder. While there’s no telling how Keenan will play, he won’t be the only freshman on the field. Army’s defense is full of freshmen and sophomores making their first Army-Navy starts. If freshman nerves are going to be a problem, it won’t only be Navy’s.
Army has an offense than can move the ball and a defensive scheme that has given Navy problems in the past. They are more than capable of winning this game. They shouldn’t, though. Navy is the better team. Army’s win over Air Force adds a little bit of pizzazz to this year’s matchup, since the Commander-In-Chief’s Trophy (what’s left of it, anyway) will be awarded to the winner. Just a little bit of pizzazz, though. Army-Navy is already an institution, making additions like the CIC Trophy little more than a sideshow for the game itself. Winning the trophy is important, though, in the broader context of the season as a whole; Navy’s resurgence after the disappointment of 2011 won’t feel complete without it. It’s an important goal left on the table for the Mids. Hopefully they’ll be dialed in to achieve it.