Army and Air Force played while Navy had the weekend off. There was a little bit of everything in the world of academy football.
The good news came from West Point, where Army strolled past Connecticut, 52-21. The game wasn’t nearly as close as the final 31-point margin indicated. Army’s defense played a lot better than the final 21-point tally for UConn might have suggested. Connecticut scored one of its touchdowns on a kickoff return, the other on a garbage-time touchdown in the final 75 seconds of regulation, down 52-14. Army’s defense gave up one touchdown in the regular run of play in this game. Jeff Monken can’t be too upset with that, though he also would be the first person to say that Army shouldn’t be giving up 21 points to Connecticut under any circumstance. The allowance of a long kickoff return for a touchdown is a real point of concern. Tightening up the special teams operation – particularly kick coverage – has to be a major point of focus in practice in the coming week.
Army got what it fundamentally needed from this week: an uncomplicated win in which the starters did not have a high-stress second half and backups were able to get plenty of work after halftime. Army gained a 42-0 lead by halftime. The Black Knights had more touchdowns (6) than UConn had first downs (5) at the intermission. The quality of opponent might have been very poor, but Army did not play poorly. The Black Knights did exactly what they were supposed to do in the first half before downshifting in the second half. They were not severely taxed, which is an important part of making it through a 12-game season with fewer injuries and a more consistently high level of play. Yes, the special teams need some work, but fundamentally, this is how Army and Monken hoped Saturday’s game would go.
For the Air Force Academy, it was a very different story on Saturday at home in Colorado Springs.
At three different points in this game, Air Force led by 11 points. The Falcons couldn’t have asked for much more from an offense which provided big-play passing to supplement a formidable rushing attack. Yet, a defense which had given up just three points to Navy the previous week and had allowed just two total touchdowns in its first two games of the season could not make these 11-point leads stand up.
Air Force was supposed to have evolved on defense due to the pandemic season creating situations in which backups were able to get meaningful snaps and gain more of an understanding of what to do on the field. This was supposed to be a smart, tough, seasoned defense, and through two games it played like it.
Not against Utah State.
It was bad enough to fail to protect three different 11-point leads; what is worse is that the two scores Utah State posted in the fourth quarter to notch a 49-45 win over the Falcons were both long scores, a 72-yard pass and a 61-yard run. That 61-yard burst by USU’s Calvin Tyler Jr. occurred with 3:54 left, a total breakdown from the Falcons’ defense in what could legitimately be viewed as a crunch-time situation.
The whiplash of going from the masterpiece versus Navy to the collapse against Utah State has to be annoying for Troy Calhoun and the defensive coaches on his staff – not just because Air Force lost, but because the consistency of the first two games gave way to a deficient performance in Week 3. Air Force realized that in the face of a diverse offense which had a credible threat in the passing game (unlike Navy, and unlike the FCS opponent AFA played in Week 1), its defense wasn’t actually that good. It’s a sobering thought, and a wakeup call for a defense which needs to show it can learn from this game – not just in the coming week against Florida Atlantic, but for the rest of the season.
Army hosts Miami of Ohio. The RedHawks’ offense has struggled this season, giving Army another opponent it can clamp down on in Michie Stadium. Miami is a lot better than UConn (who isn’t?), but it doesn’t have the advantage up front. Army should expect to dominate.
Air Force hosts Florida Atlantic, which figures to be a tough assignment. The Owls played solid defense against Florida – the Owls allowed just six more points to the Florida Gators (35) than Alabama did (29). They then allowed just six points in a blowout victory over Georgia Southern and just 14 in another wipeout of Fordham. The Air Force defense must start over.
Navy, which had Week 3 off, goes to Houston for Week 4. The Cougars are coming off an easy win against FCS member Grambling. Coach Dana Holgorsen’s Cougars are struggling this season, but few teams are struggling more than Navy, whose offense has hit rock bottom. Ken Niumatalolo had to fire longtime colleague Ivin Jasper, a sign of just how bad things have become for the Midshipmen’s offense. If Air Force defense has to start over, Navy’s offense has to do the same… only on a much larger scale.