Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Army Football Preview: at Air Force

The Army Black Knights are on the road this week for a Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy game against the Zoomies of Air Force. Because of the ongoing renovations to Falcon Stadium on post, this game will kick Saturday afternoon at the NFL’s former Mile High Stadium, now Empower Field in Denver, Colorado. 

To date, Army’s 2023 campaign has been a severe disappointment. Many expected the Black Knights to go somewhere between 6-6 and 8-4 this season. Instead, the team has regressed to depths not plumbed since at least 2015 — and maybe not even then if we’re being honest. Back-to-back shutouts followed by a loss to one of college football’s least successful programs in the UMass Minutemen have put many in mind of Army’s dreadful 2003 team from way back in the Todd Berry Era. The Army fanbase has melted down en masse in the face of such stinging disappointment, with unhinged rants springing up everywhere on social media mourning the glory days of the under-center triple-option. Even the most sober-minded must now admit that this has been the least-fun season we’ve seen on the Banks of the Hudson in a long, long time.

Thankfully, the Black Knights have a chance to change everything this weekend. A win at Air Force would reframe the narrative completely, put Army in the driver’s seat for the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy, and sink the Zoomies’ New Years Six chances with one oh-so-satisfying blow.

Air Force Falcons

Friends, Air Force is good. They are 8-0, ranked 17th in the nation in both the AP and the Coaches’ Polls, and ranked 25th in the nation in the initial College Football Playoff Poll. This Air Force team is first service academy to ever earn a ranking in that poll. They own the nation’s #1 rushing offense as well as the #4 scoring defense, but more importantly than that, they’ve played consistent, winning football week-in and week-out no matter what this season has thrown at them. Mostly they’ve blown the doors off of the teams they’ve faced. But even in the game against Wyoming, where they fumbled twice and trailed going into halftime, they came back and won in convincing fashion.

While it’s true that Air Force hasn’t played the toughest schedule in FBS college football this season, it’s also true that no one has pushed them yet, either. They kept it ultra-conservative against Navy because they could. They’ve only asked their quarterback to throw 40 times this season because they haven’t needed him to throw more. Reality is, these guys haven’t opened the playbook this season — at all — because no one has made them do it. They’re not just blowing teams’ doors off; they’re doing it without having to break out their best stuff.

Truth is, we don’t even know how good this Air Force team can be because no one has forced them to show us yet, and we’re two-thirds of the way through the season.

Offense

How does a service academy put a track star at quarterback and wind up with a kid who can complete 70% of his passes (!) while also making good reads in the triple-option? More to the point, where the Hell has this kid been for the last few years? 

QB Zac Larrier is that guy. He’s gone 28/40 passing (70%) for 651 yards with 6 touchdowns against just 5 sacks and no interceptions. That is nuts! He’s also carried the ball 111 times for 533 yards (4.8 yards/carry) with another 5 rushing touchdowns. This sets up FB Emmanuel Michel on the FB Dive/Trap. Michel leads the team in rushing with 155 carries for 696 yards (4.5 yards/carry) and 9 rushing touchdowns. 

Those two guys collectively carry the ball on about 55% of Air Force’s offensive snaps with passes making up almost 12% of the remaining offensive distribution. This means that stopping Air Force’s offense is primarily about stopping those first two legs of the triple-option.

No one has managed to get particularly close to doing that this season.

Still, you’re gonna lose the game if you let Larrier and/or Michel start running wild. The rest of the guys on this offense might also make some plays, but Larrier and Michel are the guys who are gonna kill you.

Defense

Air Force has the nation’s 2nd-ranked rushing defense, allowing just 65.8 yards/game on just 2.4 yards/carry. With that, it’s no surprise to learn that they are also ranked 25th in 3rd down defense, allowing just 33% conversions. They’re less-good on 4th downs but still a respectable 65th, allowing 50% conversions.

The Zoomies’ defense is usually good when they have a big, experienced D-Line, though this tends to express itself in the play of their linebackers. Indeed, two of their top four tacklers are linebackers while the others are safeties. So this D-Line is soaking up blocks, allowing their defensive playmakers to get after it and make plays in space.

LB Alec Mock leads the team with 59 tackles, 36 solo, plus 1 pass defensed, 1 interception, and 2 forced fumbles. S Trey Taylor has 56 tackles, 29 solo, plus a half-sack, 3 passes defensed, and 2 interceptions. LB Johnathan Youngblood comes third with 53 tackles, 26 solo, plus an interception.

Teams have had more success against the Air Force defense throwing the ball, especially in the short passing game. Colorado State completed 62% of their passes this past weekend for fully 297 yards — in the snow! — and the Rams are just 3-5 this season overall. Wyoming, too, threw for 212 yards in their game. Neither of those teams threw an interception. Hell even Navy QB Tai Lavatai, hardly an accurate passer overall, went 13/23 passing against this defense for 96 yards and a touchdown in a single quarter of manic come-from-behind madness. Granted, Lavatai also threw 2 picks, including a pick-six.

Can Army throw on these guys? Can they pass protect?

We’ll see.

Special Teams

K Matthew Dapore has gone 25/26 on extra points and 7/9 on field goals with a missed 30-yard chip shot and a miss from 40+. He’s also hit a 49-yarder, and in Denver’s the thin, we may see another one of those long kicks this weekend.

P Carson Bay averages about 45 yards/kick, and he does a nice job setting up the Zoomies’ punt return defense, too. Air Force has not allowed significant punt return yardage this season.

Final Thoughts

Army went away from the Flexbone Triple-Option because of the new blocking rules, sure. Beyond that, it’s doubtful that they wanted to be the second team in the American Conference trying to run an under-center version of the triple-option. It’s also worth noting, however, that the old offense really, really struggled in these service academy games. 

Last year’s contest saw the Black Knights rush for all of 78 yards while going 4/14 through the air for a measly 67 yards plus an interception. Whatever happens this weekend, it’ll be hard to do worse than that. Last year’s game saw the next best thing to no offense whatsoever.

On the other hand, while we all want to root for new OC Drew Thatcher, at this point it’s fair to ask, “What has he done for us lately?” No one wants to turn on the guy, but some healthy skepticism feels warranted right at this moment. The Gun Option has looked good in spurts, but it takes consistency to win football games. That consistency has been hard to come by this year.

It’s the same story on defense. DC Nate Woody might be a known quantity over the full length of his career, but right now he’s in charge of FBS Football’s 116th ranked rushing defense, allowing every bit of 185.8 rushing yards/game on more than 5 yards/carry. No one can win like that!

Can Army get it together? Can they play a complete game? 

Army Teams never have more talent, but under Head Coach Jeff Monken, they have sometimes had more fight. We haven’t seen that this year, alas, but in other years we definitely have. Now would be an awfully good time for that hard-nosed, disciplined mentality to make a comeback.

The good news is that the weather should be perfect for this game. Highs in the low- to mid-60s with plenty of sun. Plus, fully 1500 feet less altitude than we’d get at Falcon Stadium. And this is an ostensibly neutral-site game that should have plenty of Army fans in attendance. Lots of West Point classes have set reunions at this game. The situation therefore sets up beautifully for an Army upset.

Kickoff goes at 2:30 pm on CBS Sports.

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HomeSportsArmy Football Preview: at Air Force

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