Service Academy Football Update: Week 11

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Army shows it can scramble. If one had to compare the offensive styles of the service academy football programs over the past 10 years or so, Army would rate as the program least inclined to throw the ball.

It’s not that Navy or Air Force run the Air Raid on the run-and-shoot, but compared to Army, it sometimes seems like it. When Jeff Monken has a team he loves and feels supremely confident about, he throws the ball less, not more. Navy and Air Force have more consistently tried to surprise defenses with the big-play pass after hammering the triple option. Army under Monken revels in not needing to throw the ball and winning anyway – it’s a strategic move on the surface, but it’s a motivational move underneath that same surface.

Declaring – in and through the vehicle of play selection – that a team won’t pass is a statement which tells both a locker room and the opponent that the forward pass isn’t necessary. Refusing to call passes announces an intent to win with strength and discipline.

This natural preference for the running game can get Army into trouble when it falls behind. Look at the Tulane game, in which Army did throw a few more times than it would generally like to. The results weren’t pretty. Army is less equipped to come back from 14-point deficits than Navy and Air Force, and most other non-basement-dwelling teams in the FBS.

This isn’t an offense which can sleep for three quarters but then go four plays and 80 yards in a buck-fifteen (something Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs would do). This is an Army offense which has to grind it out, because winning the test of wills and the battle of the body is what tests the mettle and resolve of competitors. If you can win by walking through the fire rather than throwing a few deep passes, the achievement somehow feels more substantial.

Army fans can recall the Armed Forces Bowl against San Diego State a few years ago. The Black Knights consistently refused to pass yet still scored consistently. They mounted a late drive to come from behind and win. These moments don’t happen that often, but they do happen every now and then.

Saturday, we saw another instance of Army – the service academy team less equipped to scramble back from a multi-score deficit – pull off the improbable.

Army threw one pass – for 25 yards – on Saturday against Jeff Monken’s old team, the Georgia Southern Eagles. Yet, the Black Knights erased 14-0 and 21-7 deficits in a riveting 28-27 triumph which gave Army the perfect lead-in to the Navy game in a few weeks.

Army played what analysts like to call “complementary football” on Saturday. The offense did its part – just enough, at any rate – highlighted by an 18-play touchdown drive in the fourth quarter which took nearly 11 minutes off the clock. Yet, the offense sputtered late when trying to hold a one-point lead.

The defense rose to the occasion. A stop on 4th and 2 when Georgia Southern had crossed midfield was one massive play by Army. Then came an interception to thwart another Eagle drive in crunch time. Finally – after Georgia Southern had reached the Army 30 with nearly half a minute left – the Black Knights had one more trick up their sleeve.

Army’s Nolan Cockrill not only sacked GSU quarterback Justin Tomlin; he forced a fumble which caused a subsequent pile-up. The small but significant amount of time it took to sort out the pile – at a time when GSU lacked timeouts – enabled Army’s defense to drain the clock before the Eagles could spike the ball to attempt a field goal. Army made several game-saving plays in the span of a few minutes. The defense stood on its head.

Yet, the defense’s heroics wouldn’t have mattered if the special teams unit hadn’t also starred. Two blocked kicks – a blocked punt which led to an Army touchdown, and a blocked PAT which helped create the final 28-27 margin – were absolutely essential for West Point.

It doesn’t happen often, but it did happen Saturday: Army – getting contributions from seemingly every possible source – scrambled from behind and won.

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The Air Force Falcons (with Navy’s game at South Florida being postponed) were the other service academy team in action. They shut out the New Mexico Lobos, 28-0, on Friday night. New Mexico gained three AFA turnovers midway through the second half. Several times, the Lobos had short fields to work with against Air Force. On each occasion, the Falcons’ defense turned the Lobos away. Even if New Mexico had made the parade of field goals it wound up missing, The Lobos wouldn’t have had nearly enough points to make a game of this. Air Force allowed 304 yards to New Mexico, but not one of those yards was a yard the Lobos needed to make Air Force sweat. In every important moment, Air Force’s defense was letter-perfect. After two weeks off due to COVID-19, it was as though Air Force’s defense hadn’t missed a beat.

Army is off this coming week. Navy will make up its previously postponed game against Memphis. Air Force will play Colorado State on Thanksgiving Day afternoon.

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