The dream of an unbeaten season for Army died on Saturday in Cincinnati. No, the Black Knights were not expected to beat the nationally-ranked Bearcats in one of the better and more interesting matchups of Week 4. Nevertheless, the game will feel like a missed opportunity for the program.
Army looks better than Navy thus far (even after the Cincinnati loss, it should be noted). Air Force hasn’t played a game yet this season. The Black Knights are still in position to win the Commander-In-Chief’s Trophy and defeat the other remaining opponents on their schedule. Had Jeff Monken’s team defeated the Bearcats in Ohio, the path to an unbeaten season — and a possible New Year’s Six bowl — would have existed in plain sight. It wouldn’t have been a guarantee, but it certainly would have been possible.
That is what Saturday’s loss denied the program.
What is unfortunate about the game beyond the loss itself is that Army’s defense played more than well enough to win. The Black Knights presented the tactical approach we recommended in our “3 Keys” segment last week: Force UC quarterback Desmond Ridder to throw the ball deep and dare him to hit his targets. He largely couldn’t do it.
The big pass plays Cincinnati hit to set up two of its three touchdowns were not long balls. They were intermediate passes which involved a long run after the catch for an especially huge gain. One was a 20-yard deep crossing route (in the first half, setting up the touchdown which gave Cincinnati a 10-7 advantage), the other a wheel route in which a running back was already wide open despite being just 15 to 20 yards past the line of scrimmage. Ridder was able to make very easy throws. The paradigm of forcing Ridder to hit a deep ball didn’t hold up. Those were much shorter pitch-and-catch plays any half-decent quarterback would make.
Yet, even though a pair of coverage busts hurt the Army defense, those busts were partly the product of Army’s defense being put in way too many stressful situations. Time of possession was roughly a tie in this game, with Army having the ball one minute longer than Cincinnati. That was not going to cut it. Army needed to keep its defense fresh, and failed in the attempt. Given the talent of Cincinnati’s receivers, Army needed to limit UC possessions so that its secondary would be in the best possible position to limit the Bearcats’ output. That didn’t happen. The offense didn’t hold up its end of the bargain on Saturday.
Army was just 3 of 13 on third downs on Saturday, part of that statistic flowing from having to play catch-up in the fourth quarter and throwing on third and long a number of times. Army was 0 for 2 on fourth downs, also a result of having to go for it when trailing late in the game.
The Black Knights were sloppy — 10 penalties — and careless with the ball, coughing up two turnovers. They didn’t rush for 200 yards, finishing with 182, and their 94 passing yards represented a lot of empty calories on 10-yard passes late in the game when the Bearcats were giving up short passes as part of a conservative coverage approach.
There was nothing on the Army offensive checklist the Black Knights accomplished. They expect to rush for at least 250 if not 300 yards. They fell short. Turnover-free ball? They fell short. Third-down efficiency? A 3-of-13 clip falls well short of where they want to be. Not converting a fourth down? Triple option teams depend on being able to convert a fourth down on a key drive. Time of possession? Army would like that number to be in the mid-30s at minimum, and didn’t come especially close.
Tip the cap to Cincinnati’s star defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman. He is a hot commodity in the coaching profession and will get his shot at a head coaching job before too long. He had the answers for Army, but the visitors from West Point didn’t do everything under their own control, such as protect the football.
It’s unfortunate, because if you had told anyone before Saturday that Army’s defense would give up a net of 17 points to Cincinnati (24 allowed, but seven scored on the steal of a UC option pitch for a touchdown), a lot of Army fans would have said that would be enough to win. Army scoring just 18 points and coming out on top? Sign me up, many West Pointers would have said.
Yet, Army was limited to 10 points by a very good defense. It happens. There will be no unbeaten season, but Army can now focus on making sure this is the only game the Brave Old Army Team loses in 2020.
Army prepares for Abilene Christian this upcoming Saturday. The Black Knights should have no problem winning; Monken and his staff will focus on the offense cleaning up its act and weeding out the mistakes seen against Cincy.
The big upcoming service-academy football game is the first Commander-In-Chief’s Trophy game of 2020. Navy visits Air Force in Colorado Springs. No one knows which version of Navy will show up: the team which was outscored 79-3 in its first six quarters, or the team which outscored Tulane 27-0 in the second half on Sept. 19.
Air Force — now given the green light to play a Mountain West football season — will play its season opener against Navy. A season opener on Oct. 3? Yep, that’s football in a pandemic in this entirely unique and weird year. Air Force will be physically fresh, but the possibility of rust after an extended and disjointed offseason might hurt the Falcons. A word of advice: Given the unprecedented circumstances surrounding Navy-Air Force, don’t have too firm or fixed of an opinion on this game. It’s a mystery, and you should be prepared to expect the unexpected, in any and every possible direction.