Go Army, beat Navy. It's a cheer, but on Saturday, it might as well be a command of sorts for Army head coach Rich Ellerson. If the rumors are to be believed, Ellerson might need to beat the rival Midshipmen if he wants to coach for a sixth year at West Point.
Ellerson's tenure at Army has been a confusing one. He hit the ground running, going 12-13 in his first two seasons; that was a pretty incredible start for a school that had won just 20 games in the previous nine seasons. Army even beat SMU in the 2010 Armed Forces Bowl, the program's first bowl win since 1985. But he's only won eight times since then, and it appears the writing is on the wall.
For what it's worth, Army has most certainly improved overall in 2013. The Black Knights put up a solid fight against Stanford (they lost 34-20 on September 14), whipped Louisiana Tech and Eastern Michigan, played Wake Forest and Ball State close for a while, and in recent weeks have suffered narrow losses to Western Kentucky (21-17) and Hawaii (49-42). They rank 99th in the F/+ rankings, which is far from amazing but is ahead of Kentucky (100th), Kansas (101st), California (105th), Purdue (114th), and the Army team that ranked 106th last year.
The question is whether that's enough. Beating Navy would solidify 2013 as a season in which Army took its first step forward in three years. A loss would make that a baby step at best.
In any given season, beating Navy is the primary goal, especially for an Army program that hasn't met that goal since 2001. If it's even possible to assign extra weight to this game, Ellerson's job status might do so.
How does Navy win?
Quarterback Keenan Reynolds. Hunter Martin, Getty.
Navy wins by continuing to be better than Army, basically. These teams are basically the same -- solid, tricky option offenses with overwhelmed, undersized defenses. You pretty quickly catch onto the similarities when watching these teams, but you see the same thing in the stats. Navy is 26th in Off. F/+ but 115th in Def. F/+; Army is 56th and 99th, respectively. Navy's offense is 39th in Rushing S&P+, first in Methodical Drives, and first in Stuff Rate; Army's is 49th, 11th, and fifth. Navy's defense is 79th in Standard Downs S&P+, 108th in Passing Downs S&P+, 125th in Methodical Drives, and 118th in Stuff Rate; Army's defense is 121st, 122nd, 84th, and 96th. Offense: pretty good. Defense: less so.
Across the board, strengths and weakness are basically the same, but on average Navy's strengths are a little stronger and weaknesses are a little weaker. This isn't a new development.
Navy's offense tends to be quite strong. From 2007 to '11, the Midshipmen ranked between eighth (in 2007) and 33rd (2009) in Off. F/+ every season; Ken Niumatalolo took over for Paul Johnson in 2008, and while his offense hasn't quite matched 2007's level, it usually comes close. The exception: last year, when freshman Keenan Reynolds took over after some water-treading. Reynolds had some high points, but most of last year's Army game wasn't one of them. For the game, he carried 14 times for just 48 yards and fumbled twice, but with Navy trailing 13-10 midway through the fourth quarter, he engineered a nearly perfect drive, completing two passes for 59 yards and rushing twice for 19 yards and a score.
(His only problem on that drive was that Navy scored too quickly and allowed Army and quarterback Trent Steelman a chance to score in the final seconds. Steelman and fullback Larry Dixon, however, muffed a handoff, and Navy recovered the ensuing fumble, locking up the Midshipmen's 11th-straight win in the series.)
If Reynolds is over last year's jitters, Navy's offense should do just fine. The Middies peck and poke with Reynolds and fullback Chris Swain (or any number of fullbacks who have seen time this year because of injuries), then, as always, gash you with the slot backs. Darius Staten, Geoffrey Whiteside, and DeBrandon Sanders have combined for 936 yards (8.8 per carry) and six touchdowns, along with 22 catches for 424 yards and three scores. If there is one recruiting advantage Navy has routinely had over Army (and Air Force, for that matter), it's in bringing in burners in the slot. Navy is still based more on efficiency than anything else, but the Midshipmen are typically a bit more capable at picking up 20-yard gains. The Midshipmen have 30 20-yard rushes in 2013, 12th-most in the country. Army has closed the gap, but still has just 25. (For what it's worth, Army does have more 30-yard rushes.)
The biggest concern at that point is simply that under Ellerson, Army tends to defend Navy pretty well. After averaging 39.0 points per game in the first seven years of the current Navy win streak over Army, the Middies have averaged only 23.0 points per game in four games against Ellerson's Black Knights. Army's defense, tasked with defending its own offense's mirror image, has done relatively well despite awful overall numbers. (Of course, Navy's defense typically succeeds a bit more. Army's offense has averaged only 13.5 points per game versus Navy under Ellerson.)
It remains to be seen whether Army's defense can keep up this level of success against Navy, considering the injuries that have wreaked havoc in 2013. Only one of Army's top eight tacklers, and six of its top 19, has played in all 11 games. There is disruptive potential here in ends Mike Ugenyi and Robert Kough (both juniors), but the unit's overall potential has been reduced by endlessly rotating lineups.
How does Army win?
Running back Terry Baggett. Danny Wild, USA Today.
First of all, hold onto the damn ball. The Black Knights' upset bid was foiled last year in part because they fumbled five times and lost three. (Navy fumbled twice and lost one.) When you run an option offense, you're going to lay the ball on the ground. Five times is a bit much.
If Army can win the turnover battle and hold Navy to 21 to 24 points at most, then the Black Knights' own strengths could come into play. Army is decent at moving the ball methodically, getting at least a first down or two, and attempting to flip the field. Meanwhile, Navy's defense is rather accommodating in this regard; the Midshipmen currently rank 125th, dead last, in Brian Fremeau's Methodical Drives measure. They are not very disruptive, even by Navy standards, having recorded just 34 tackles for loss in 2013. (For means of comparison, Pitt's Aaron Donald has 26.5 tackles for loss by himself in 2013.)
An Army offense that holds onto the ball could produce a 100-yard day from A-back Terry Baggett. The junior from Chicago has had a lovely season, rushing for 1,072 yards and eight scores and catching six passes (fourth on the team!) for 123 yards. Meanwhile, freshman Xavier Moss has brought reasonably decent receiving numbers to the table; the target of more than one-third of Army's passes, Moss has caught 30 of 52 balls for 413 yards and a score. Quarterback Angel Santiago, who got some experience in spelling Steelman through the years, has done alright calling the shots. His numbers aren't incredible (4.0 yards per carry, 5.3 yards per pass attempt), but again, offense is not Army's primary issue.
You know what to expect from these teams on Saturday. Option, ball control, option, ball control, avoid disaster. Army gave the game away last year and could very well take it back this time around if it takes advantage of Navy's mistakes and makes few of its own. But as has been the case for a while, the odds are on Navy's side.
How does Army compete?
There's no question that Ellerson's tenure has suffered from some pretty clear diminishing returns. In the last three years, he's won two-thirds as many games as he won in his first two years. That's not good. But can Army do better?
The Black Knights haven't seen back-to-back winning seasons since Jim Young left in 1990, and aside from Young's sterling tenure (six winning records in seven years from 1984-90, albeit with help from a lot of wins over FCS teams), the program hasn't been consistently decent since the 1960s.
Now, part of the reason for this is obvious. While college football players continue to get bigger, stronger, and faster, players at service academies by necessity stay the same size. There is still a basic training element here -- at Air Force, for instance, you're required to run 1.5 miles in 11 minutes at 7,000 feet -- and the bottom line is that it's going to be endlessly difficult to find 300-pound road-graders who can pass the tests that come with being a student/recruit at a service academy.
Winning in college football is difficult everywhere. Winning at Army, Navy, or Air Force is doubly so.
Still … Navy's figured it out. The Midshipmen aren't competing for national titles by any means, and they've only finished the season ranked once since the 1960s, but since Paul Johnson took over, they've found both a level of tactical prowess and a commitment to athletics that have paid off. Navy has missed a bowl only once since 2003. In that same span of time, with three different coaches, Army has only been to a bowl once.
The Birddog, a wonderful Navy blog, addressed the topic of Army's (and to a certain degree, Air Force's) overall struggles recently.
Until very recently, Air Force was still using active-duty officers to lead their athletic departments. Their first AD since then, Hans Mueh, is the former head of the school’s chemistry department and vice dean of faculty with no prior experience in athletics administration other than as a faculty athletics representative. Army has had three athletic directors since 1999. The first, Rick Greenspan, came from a I-AA school and left Army for Indiana. His successor, Kevin Anderson, was an associate AD at Oregon State before coming to West Point. He left for Maryland. Army’s search for Anderson’s replacement included an Ivy League AD and associate AD at Wisconsin before settling on Boo Corrigan, senior associate AD at Duke. Navy, on the other hand, has had two athletic directors since 1988: Jack Lengyel, who was hired away from Missouri, and Chet Gladchuk, who came to USNA from Houston after serving as AD at Tulane and Boston College. Army and Air Force have a group of small school ADs, first-time ADs, and people who used the job as a stepping stone. Navy hired guys who were experienced I-A (and BCS-level) ADs that saw USNA as an aspirational job. That’s not a knock on the people Army and Air Force do hire, it’s just that they’re at different points in their careers. Navy doesn’t take a chance when they hire ADs; they hire people with a proven track record.
The reason for this difference is simple: money. Because NAAA is a 501(c)(3) corporation and not funded by the government, it isn’t subject to the same government regulations when it comes to fundraising. Army and Air Force are organized differently. While their coaches are not paid with taxpayer money, they are paid with government money through the Non-Appropriated Fund Instrumentalities set up to support their athletic departments (both Army and Air Force coaches are technically government contractors). NAFI fundraising is more restrictive than what Navy is able to do. Navy simply has more money to pay ADs and coaches, so on average, they hire better ones. Navy and Air Force don’t play each other in most sports that regularly, so it’s hard to make a direct comparison between the two athletic departments. The Falcons’ historical struggles in WAC and Mountain West competition, however, certainly don’t do much to suggest otherwise. Army and Navy play all the time, and the results speak for themselves.
We tend to think of the Army, Navy, and Air Force jobs as exactly the same, but they really aren't. For better or worse, Navy treats athletics as a whole in a different manner, and especially as it pertains to football, the results indeed speak for themselves. While Army tries to figure out if and how it wants to run athletics differently, one has to wonder whether anybody can perform at a higher level than Ellerson has.
One also has to wonder whether getting rid of Ellerson after a year of improvement, any improvement, would be the smartest plan of action. Regardless, it might be in Ellerson's best interests to actually get some breaks and win on Saturday, just in case.
And no matter who wins, it's in everybody's best interests to catch the pre- and post-game festivities. They never disappoint.
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