After decades of inconsistency, Army will play in back-to-back bowl games for just the second time in program history.
As we head down the stretch of the regular season, the media focuses on the College Football Playoff race. This consists of the top tier teams from the Power Five conferences, as they battle to be among the top four in the College Football Playoff Rankings. We at SQ have started the “Underdog U” series which covers a non-Power Five team that deserves your attention. This week, we’ll look at Army and how the Black Knights have amassed eight wins so far this season.
Why You Don’t Know Them
Army’s football program hasn’t succeeded consistently in decades, as they had not put back-to-back winning season together since 1989-1990 before this year. Since 1997, Army has a dismal record of 72-174 and had seven different head coaches during that span. Also, the Black Knights have only played in six bowl games since the program’s start in 1890.
The peak of Army’s football program was a three-year stretch from 1944-46 in which head coach Earl Blaik led the Black Knights to three consecutive national championships, posting a record of 27-0-1.
In addition to the football program’s recent struggles, Army currently is a FBS Independent, meaning that they don’t belong to a conference. Out of 129 FBS teams, only three others are independents: Notre Dame, BYU and UMass. Former independents joined conferences to create rivalries and draw fan interest. Most conferences also have a championship game, which provides the top two teams in the conference a chance to boost their resume right before bowl season.
Independents like Army and Notre Dame can survive because they have a national fanbase to draw from and football traditions. Army’s traditions include their three national championships and rivalries with Air Force, Navy, Notre Dame and Rutgers.
However, the rest of Army’s opponents are where the issue lies. Their schedule is usually soft, as they have ranked outside the top 70 in the Jeff Sagarin strength of schedule ratings every year since 2010. This provides them with few opportunities to prove themselves as serious contenders, which is where Notre Dame differs. Over that same span, the Fighting Irish have ranked in the top 40 each year in the Jeff Sagarin strength of schedule ratings. Notre Dame’s rivals include solid Power Five football programs, such as USC, Michigan State, Purdue, Michigan, Florida State, etc., which provides the Irish with consistent opportunities to prove themselves each year.
Until Army strengthens their schedule with more Power Five opponents, the Black Knights will have a difficult time proving themselves as a legitimate contenders and will not gain the media’s attention. As seen this year, Army is 8-2 and unranked in the AP Poll, receiving only three votes total.
Why You Should Know Them
Army head coach Jeff Monken has turned the program around since his arrival in 2014. In the three seasons prior to Monken, the Black Knights won just eight games. It took Monken a couple years, as he went 6-18 in his first two years, but Army appears to have turned the corner.
Last year, Monken led the team to a 8-5 record and the Black Knight’s sixth ever bowl appearance. This year, Army is already 8-2 and looking to crack the AP Top 25 for the first time since 1996.
What has changed since Monken has taken over?
In terms of the Army offense, not much has changed, at least schematically.
Army, like Navy and Air Force, is known for their triple option attack. This system is based around the quarterback reading defenders and determining who gets the ball. The triple option relies on a mobile quarterback and two capable running backs. The offense is very one-dimensional, as it focuses on pounding the ball on the ground.
“I thought we had to throw it more than we’ve been throwing it to win,” Monken said. “As it turns out, we’ve just run the ball more effectively this year than we’ve ever run, and that’s been good enough most of the times we’ve played. It’s not that we can’t pass or that we refuse to do it.”
Quarterback Ahmad Bradshaw leads this effective rushing attack. The dynamic signal caller has 1,228 rushing yards and nine rushing touchdowns on 162 carries, which are all team highs. Most importantly, Bradshaw commands the offense, as he reads the defense and determines what to do with the football.
If you like players that can rip off very long runs, you will like Ahmad Bradshaw. pic.twitter.com/A529KUOdY5— CBS Sports Network (@CBSSportsNet) October 14, 2017
As a team, Army is second in the nation in rushing yards per game (351.5) and third in rushing touchdowns (36). Since 2015, Army’s effectiveness on the ground has increased dramatically. Monken has helped Army increase their rushing yards per game and rushing yards per carry every year since 2015. Now, the Black Knights find themselves as perhaps the most lethal ground attack in the nation.
|Category||2015||2016||2017 (Through 10 Games)|
How one-dimensional is the triple option? Bradshaw rarely throws the ball, as he averages a mere 3.6 passing attempts per game. Army’s key to success is controlling the clock and not allowing teams to jump out to big leads because of their inability to pass the ball.
Army’s leading receiver has just five catches for 111 yards on the season. Bradshaw has only completed eleven passes for 232 yards. In today’s game where spread offenses and downfield passing rule football, these numbers seem baffling.
This system has proved to be successful, however; in four of the Black Knight’s victories this year, their offense has failed to complete a pass. Through ten games, Army has reached the 100-yard passing mark only once, which was in their comeback victory over Temple.
This is still a thing. pic.twitter.com/by7i1RgOGn— ESPN CollegeFootball (@ESPNCFB) November 5, 2017
In the game against Temple, Army needed to drive 79 yards in just 91 seconds to force overtime. Due to Bradshaw’s lack of ability to throw the ball, backup quarterback Kelvin Hopkins Jr. was put in to run the two-minute offense. Hopkins rose to the occasion, completing five of eleven passes for 67 yards and the game-tying touchdown. When Army is forced to pass the ball, they have shown that they are capable.
WP Football (@ArmyWP_Football) October 24, 2017
Bradshaw has no issue with turning the reigns over in the two-minute offense:
“It’s normal for me,” Bradshaw said. “Just execute, get the job done, do what you’ve got to do to get the job done.”
Playing from behind isn’t ideal for the Black Knights, as they are at their best when they can run the triple option without need to throw the ball. If Bradshaw and the offense can continue to shred opposing defenses with the triple option, Army has a good chance of finishing the season with a double-digit win total for the first time since 1996.
The Road Ahead
Left on the regular season schedule for Army are two tough opponents in 7-3 North Texas and 6-3 Navy. After losing two of their first three games, North Texas has won six of their past seven, scoring an average of 37.5 points per game over that stretch. However, the Mean Green are giving up 33.6 points per game, so expect a shootout Saturday night.
Navy and Army are built similarly, as both teams pound the rock with the triple option attack. The two teams are first and second in the nation in rushing yards per game, as they both average over 350 rushing yards per contest. Expect a lot of triple option from both teams, as this game will be won in the trenches.
With eight wins already, Army is bowl-eligible for the second consecutive season. They have already accepted an invitation to the Lockhead Martin Armed Forces Bowl, which will be the program’s seventh bowl appearance all-time and first back-to-back bowl appearances since 1984-1985. If Monken’s squad can win their next two contests, expect the Black Knights to make an appearance in the AP Poll.
*All stats courtesy of espn.com, sports-reference.com and stats.ncaa.org
Edited by Joe Sparacio.
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