I’ve gotten a lot of things wrong lately when it comes to Army.
To start with, I didn’t think they’d hire Jeff Monken. I thought that way for a couple of reasons. One, I didn’t think Army would make a hire that could be construed as “doing what Navy does” or something along those lines. Monken’s track record at Georgia Southern and Georgia Tech alone was enough to qualify him for the job, but he also spent several years in Annapolis, coaching alongside several members the current Navy staff. He was a big part of the resurgence of the Navy program, and knows what it took to make it happen. It’s common sense that he would be a good candidate for another service academy job. I just wasn’t sure that common sense would rule the day at West Point.
You have to understand; there’s something strange about the West Point psyche. They are consumed with the idea that they are better than the Naval Academy. I don’t mean “Beat Navy” stuff being plastered everywhere. Everyone wants to beat their rival. No, I mean a genuine feeling of superiority, like it’s just a given. Every once in a while, that feeling bubbles up to the surface, like when Jim Cantelupe decided to randomly declare that Rich Ellerson’s offense was “superior” to Navy’s. Even in their advertising, West Point says that they are “America’s Academy.” As a Navy fan I just kind of roll my eyes at it, but I also wondered at the time if Army would have too much pride to hire a Navy guy. To their credit, they did not.
Army wanting Monken is only one half of the equation, though. I also didn’t think that any Navy coach, including Monken, would want to go to Army. That’s not because of some loyalty to the Naval Academy, but because they would be all too familiar with how Army operates and the disadvantages associated with that. Clearly that was not the case, and since then we’ve learned about some of the changes that Army is trying to make.
So Army hired Jeff Monken, a move that pretty much everyone thinks was a good one, myself included. He’s a good Xs & Os guy, but the last Army staff were good Xs & Os guys too. Where they failed was mostly in recruiting, and in Monken Army has someone who knows exactly the kind of players that helped Navy win games. It’s probably safe to say that the days of Army and Navy not meeting on the recruiting trail are gone. Whether he’ll be able to attract those players to West Point is another story, but the first step is to actually try, and Army now has a coach who will do that much.
My high regard for Monken might have clouded my judgment at the beginning of the season, because I thought that Army had a decent chance at playing in a bowl game. Not that I didn’t recognize Army’s flaws; I just felt that they could be overcome. The Black Knights had plenty of talent returning in the backfield. Larry Dixon is an excellent option fullback. Terry Baggett is a big play waiting to happen. Raymond Maples was returning from his injury, and both Trenton Turrentine and Tony Giovanelli had become experienced ballcarriers in his absence. Angel Santiago, while not being much of a passer, is a better option quarterback than he sometimes gets credit for. Despite the team’s losses along the offensive line, I felt that there was enough there that Army would be able to put points on the board to win some shootouts against a schedule that wasn’t exactly overwhelming.
It didn’t turn out that way. An already patchwork offensive line was further decimated with the preseason injury to tackle Justin Gilbert, who was arguably the team’s best up front. With the injury, Army’s lack of depth became a real issue. Wyatt Wilkerson was moved from defensive to offensive line, while Corey Hobbs was moved to the OL from tight end. Only one lineman (C Matt Hugenberg) has started all 11 games this season; the Black Knights have started a different combination of linemen in each of their last 9 games. With an OL that was dealing with nagging injuries and trying to find the best 5 to put on the field, it’s been difficult for Baggett to find opportunities to fill the playmaker role that was expected of him. He only has 380 rushing yards and 2 touchdowns on the season. The result has been a scoring offense ranked 81st in the country, averaging only 26.3 points per game.
With Army’s defense transitioning from the double eagle flex to a more conventional 3-4, the offense needed to score a lot more than that. Rich Ellerson’s defense was built to take advantage of “hybrid” players. Guys that are too small to be a lineman but too big to be a linebacker have a place in the double eagle flex, which doesn’t emphasize the usual line-linebacker-secondary structure of most defenses. In a 3-4, those physical differences stand out a bit more. Before the season there was a lot of hype over how much bigger Army was thanks to its new strength and conditioning program, but every program says that sort of thing. The Army defense has been pushed around this year, and has surrendered more than 34 points per game. There’s some talent there; Josh Jenkins is a legitimate cornerback, and Jeremy Timpf has had an outstanding season at linebacker with 102 tackles. As with the Army offense, though, depth is an issue.
There is a chance, though, that maybe– maybe— Army is turning a corner. Most people would probably agree that losing to Yale was the low point of Army’s season, and it’s hard to argue with that. For the offense, however, I’d argue that they hit rock bottom against Air Force. Army was absolutely manhandled in that game, managing only 122 rushing yards. But since then, Army’s won two out of three while averaging 334 rushing yards per contest. Could the Army offense finally have found its winning formula? Perhaps. I think what these results really show, though, is the difference between defenses that win their physical matchups and those that don’t.
The Connecticut game is a good example of this. UConn’s head coach is Bob Diaco, a name that Navy fans know well as the former defensive coordinator at Notre Dame. In the 2010 Navy-Notre Dame game, Diaco had his inside linebackers shoot the A-gaps while the fullback would run right by them through the B-gaps. The next two years, Diaco decided not to try to out-scheme Navy, and instead just let his players win their individual matchups. It resulted in a pair of blowouts, as Navy was unable to block Manti Te’o in 2011 and the entire Irish defensive line in 2012. Diaco tried the same plan against Army this year, but without the talent he had at Notre Dame, things didn’t go quite as well.
Army ran the triple option early on. UConn lined up in a pretty standard 4-3, giving what amounted to a 6-man front. The cornerbacks lined up in press coverage on Army’s wide receivers. When that happens, the cornerback becomes the playside A-back’s blocking responsibility, since the WR would be out of position if the CB blitzed. The receiver’s job is to block the safety. That’s what happened on the first play here. The problem is that the WR spent too much time dorking around with the CB, and didn’t get to the safety in time.
Since the safety was being so aggressive in run support, though, the Army coaches knew that UConn wasn’t going to fire their corners. Because of this, they were able to adjust their blocking assignments. They called the same play, only this time the WR just ran the CB out of the play while the PSA blocked the safety. The result was a big gain:
That took Army inside the UConn 15, and eventually they were able to punch it into the end zone. It took a bit of effort (and a fake field goal) to do it, though. They tried running some midline and some fullback dives, but had a hard time getting a push up the middle. To adjust, Army switched to an “over” formation, with twin WRs and an A-back on the line of scrimmage on the strong side. In this formation, when Army ran the triple to the strong side, they were able get a better push up the middle by double-teaming the playside DT. The DE is still #1 and unblocked, with the OLB as #2. The PSA blocks the MLB, and the receivers block the DBs lined up in front of them. The way UConn was lined up, the only player left unblocked and able to make the play is the safety coming over from the backside.
With that backside safety being conditioned to come across the field to make the tackle, he gets set up for a counter in the other direction:
Because Army’s coaches were able to identify how UConn was using their corners (and that they weren’t blitzing), they were also able to run the outside zone in much the same way that Navy did against Georgia Southern:
Army went on to run for 327 yards in a 35-21 victory.
Army was able to bounce back from their worst offensive performance to deliver one of their best. The difference wasn’t with Army as much as it was the teams they were playing. Air Force doesn’t have the physical ability of those past Notre Dame teams, obviously, but they do have excellent technique against cut blocking. UConn did not, and Army demonstrated that it could move the ball very effectively against teams that aren’t as fundamentally sound that way. UConn took a very conservative approach to defending the option, forcing Army to out-execute them rather than giving the Black Knights the chance to out-scheme them. Army responded. Buddy Green usually takes the same approach against option offenses. He did against Georgia Southern, and the Mids played their best game of the season. Last year, Navy beat Army with execution, and will have to do so again on Saturday.
Of course, the same applies when Navy has the ball, too. For all of Army’s physical limitations, they usually defend Navy as well as anyone thanks to good technique. Even last year, Army bottled up Navy for a decent portion of the game. The difference was that Navy’s physical talent enabled them to hit some big plays, while Army could not.
Against Air Force, Army showed that not much is likely to change this year. While Air Force doesn’t run Navy’s offense, it’s the closest thing we have to compare from Army’s schedule. The Army defense performed well, too, holding Air Force to 242 rushing yards. Last year, Air Force was able to beat Army with big plays, but this year they had to grind out drives.
Once in a while, Army would fire a cornerback…
…but for the most part they kept things simple. The Falcons are primarily a zone blocking team, and whenever they’d try to run the outside zone, Army did a pretty good job stringing the play out with gap discipline:
Air Force tried to slow down some of that pursuit by cutting back behind it…
…but their bread and butter was the pin & pull. The pin & pull is a play that zone running teams like to use when they’re unable to turn the corner on stretch plays. It’s a way to create a “wall” against inside-out pursuit. The playside linemen block down on the defensive line, while one or two linemen from the backside (and maybe a fullback) pull around to block the second-level defenders following the direction of the play.
It wasn’t spectacular, but it kept the chains moving.
What was slightly more spectacular was the Air Force passing game, which went for 141 yards and 2 TDs. Navy is a better passing team than Army, and should get some opportunities through the air. For the Mids to win this game, they need to take advantage of the things they can do that Army cannot, so I expect to see a few more passes than usual. Air Force didn’t exactly set the world on fire against Army, so I don’t know how much Coach Jasper will want to borrow from that game. I do think we’ll see some zone plays, maybe even out of the shotgun to set up play action.
There are comparisons to be made between Army and Georgia Southern. The Eagles came to Annapolis with an impressive record, but they hadn’t really played anybody. Navy ended up playing their best game of the year. For the most part, Army hasn’t played anybody either. Like I said before the Georgia Southern game, I’m not a schedule snob, so I’m not being critical of who Army has played. However, when you compare both teams and see that Navy is ranked higher in almost every statistical category while playing a much tougher schedule, it’s clear who should win this game.
There are a couple of nagging details that should keep you from being too overconfident, though. One, Army is coming into this game playing better than they have all year. They’re healthier, and they’ve won 2 out of their last 3. Yeah, one was a comeback win over Fordham, but still. This is a team that has bounced back a bit from its earlier struggles. The team that lost to Yale is not the team that will be taking the field in Baltimore.
Two, there is one important statistic where Navy is not ranked ahead of Army: turnover margin. In years past, Army could be counted on to make a game-altering mistake. This year, Navy has committed more than their fair share. In fairness, the Mids have won 4 out of 5 and are also playing their best football, but any relapse to the team’s earlier form and Army will be more than capable of capitalizing. Navy is the more talented team, but turnovers are the great equalizer.
Navy is the better team, and my brain assures me that they’ll win this game. This is Army-Navy, though, so my heart (and my stomach) will never be that confident. There’s a new coach on the Army sideline, so there’s an element of the unknown. Here’s hoping that Jeff Monken’s debut goes like Rich Ellerson’s, Stan Brock’s, and Bobby Ross’ before him, and our seniors put a 4th star on their letter sweaters.