2012 Army, Navy Football Previews: When 'More Than A Game' Is Not A Cliche

LANDOVER, MD - DECEMBER 10: An Army Cadet cheers during the first half against the Navy Midshipmen at FedEx Field on December 10, 2011 in Landover, Maryland. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

Both Army and Navy took steps backwards in 2011 after riding their underdog strategies of choice to bowls the previous season. Will each team bounce back in 2012? Will Army ever beat Navy again? And in this shifting college football landscape, what roles will the programs play in the undefined future? Related: complete 2012 statistical profiles (Navy's, Army's), which include projected starters, year-to-year trends, and rankings galore.

In 1934, amid a monsoon at Philadelphia's Franklin Field, Navy's Slade Cutter nails a 28-yard field goal in front of 80,000, and the Midshipmen win their first game over Army in 13 years, 3-0. The teams combined for just five first downs, 132 yards of offense and 25 punts, but the celebration is in no way dampened.

Every cliche has already been utilized. "More than a game," et cetera. There's nothing I could say regarding the importance or grandeur of the Army-Navy rivalry that others already haven't. So instead, I'll just talk about these schools' places in today's game. Or, to put it more accurately, tomorrow's game. It has been almost 50 years since Army and Navy were considered college football super powers, but they have always had a seat at the table. They take on reasonably challenging schedules, they occasionally experience solid runs of success (Navy went to eight consecutive bowls from 2003 to 2010, Army went to three in five seasons from 1984-88), but for the most part its like they're meant to make us feel really good about both ourselves and the sport of college football when they butt heads in early December.

So my question is simple: What role should Army and Navy play in college football moving forward? If college football superpowers form a new top division of the sport, should these schools get a place at the table simply because of what they have meant to the sport in the past? For all the talk of lost tradition and rivalry during conference realignment, would relative relegation of these programs deal a fatal blow of sorts? Does their division or subdivision even matter if they still get to play on CBS and make us happy each winter?

Sure, Navy's joining the Big East in 2015. But Army tried joining a conference before, too, and decided it wasn't the right move.

From Doc Blanchard to Ricky Dobbs, Army and Navy have given us some of the most memorable, impressive young men college football has ever seen. As the schools attempt to figure out how to compete at a high level, and what competing at a high level would mean for the schools as a whole … what will college football see of Army and Navy in the future?


Related: Check out Navy's statistical profile and Army's statistical profile.

Last Year

Here's what I said about Navy last year:

The service academies do it right. No pretense, no pretending they are something they aren't. They (and thanks to Army's recent restoration, it is a full "they" with Army, Navy and Air Force) assume they are getting by with a lot of players who didn't get scholarship offers elsewhere, and they figure out how to beat you with those players anyway. "You're bigger, stronger and faster than us? Fine. We're going to cut block you, we're going to hit you from unexpected angles, we're going to take away your instincts, we're going to make you think far more than you want to be thinking on the field, and we're going to run circles around you." It's more-or-less how Wake Forest won the ACC in 2006 and beat Florida State three straight times, it's how Navy has won at least eight games each year since 2002, and it's why I really, really wanted Vanderbilt to go after Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo this past offseason. Alas. […]

Navy's underdog strategy of choice, of course, is the good ol' flexbone (mixed with a nice-and-sneaky 3-4 defense, a "misdirection" defense if ever one existed). Paul Johnson figured out how to run it to perfection, and Niumatalolo continued the string of solid play from the Middies when Johnson left to win an ACC title at Georgia Tech. […]

There is plenty of reason to wonder if Navy might fall back to the pack a bit and struggle for bowl eligibility in 2011. Navy must make trips to South Carolina, Rutgers, Notre Dame and SMU in 2011. But I'm not the type to bet against a streak. Kriss Proctor looks like he could be yet another effective option quarterback for the Midshipmen, and when a team wins for this many years in a row, I'm just going to continue picking them to win until they don't.

And Army:

[D]amn, was Army good once. Like, Notre Dame good. Better, actually, for a number of years. Like, "three in the all-time Top 10, five in the Top 100" good. Of course, that was a long time ago. Fordham was great once, too, and that doesn't have much impact on the present day.

Still, it was enjoyable seeing Army playing well last season. I'm not a big subscriber to the "College Football is more enjoyable when (Random Old Power) is good again" theory (as a Mizzou fan, I've revolted against that line of thought regarding Nebraska for years and years), but I do enjoy redemption tales, and I do enjoy when teams prove that you can win with different styles of football. Under Rich Ellerson, Army has thrown themselves into the "flexbone, 3-4 defense, underdog strategies galore" approach that Navy and Air Force have successfully utilized for a while now, and ... well, it worked in 2010. The Cadets made their first bowl since 1996 and only their second since 1988. They overcame a lack of athleticism with efficiency and execution, they whipped Duke, they almost upset Rutgers, they knocked off SMU in the Armed Forces Bowl ... what more is there to say? They had a really good season. To have another one in 2011, they'll have to work out the kinks with quite a bit of key, new personnel. […]

I enjoy when the service academies do well (most of the time, at least), but I'll be rather surprised if Army is able to put together six wins again. […] In all, however, the recipe Ellerson is following is a proven winner at service academies, and he certainly put a smart product on the field last season. If the offensive line gels, the offense could have enough pieces to win despite a holes-plagued defense, but it looks as if Army might be taking a step backwards this season despite a solid overall trajectory.

For the first time since 1996 (and just the second time since 1967), both Army and Navy finished with winning records in 2010, but solid turnover for both schools resulted in regression in 2011; they fell from a combined record of 16-10 to 8-16, and both schools missed bowls for the first time since 2002. The step backwards was predictable for Army, which improved a little too much, too soon, to sustain gains; but for Navy, its 5-7 campaign was the worst since Paul Johnson's first season in Annapolis in 2002. The offense regressed as the season went on (first seven games: 32.5 Adj. Points per game; last five: 28.1), but their failure was mostly the result of a horrid defense. The Midshipmen have fallen from 47th in Def. F/+ in 2009, to 93rd in 2010, to 116th in 2011; they have basically relied on efficiency against the run and big-play prevention against the pass, but they succeeded at neither last fall, ranking in the triple digits in most advanced categories. They were still a decent defense on passing downs, but they were completely incapable of forcing passing downs.

For Army, the regression was more uniform -- compared to 2010, they fell from 57th to 97th in Off. F/+, from 75th to 101st in Def. F/+ and from 39th to 118th in Special Teams F/+. You aren't going to win a lot of games with those rankings.

Offense

In 1962, just a few weeks after the Cuban Missile Crisis, a sophomore quarterback by the name of Roger Staubach scrambled around, passed over and ran through the favored Army defense in a 34-14 upset win. Staubach had been inserted into the starting lineup midway through the season in hopes of sparking the Navy offense. A year later, he would win the Heisman trophy, lead the Middies to a 9-1 regular season record (and a 21-15 win over Army) and narrowly miss out on a national title.

As we all know by now, both Army and Navy run the good, old-fashioned flexbone offense. Yesterday, we talked about the ways that Air Force has attempted to modernize its flexbone offense with a multitude of formations and looks. Hell, they don't even list their multiple running backs as fullbacks and slotbacks. Army and Navy also attempt to confuse defenses with different formations, but they stick closer to the purer, rawer flexbone. Here's a piece that Smart Football's Chris Brown wrote for Grantland in December:

The game was a great example of how the flexbone has evolved in recent years. Navy and Air Force in particular have taken the base "flexbone" set, which has a back lined up behind the quarterback — the "B" back — and to each side a split wide receiver and a wing player, each an "A" back. Most plays start with one of the A backs going in motion and the triple-option sequence begins: The quarterback can hand it off on a dive up the middle, take it around end himself, or begin to take it and pitch it to one of the A backs. The beauty of the option is not just the reads, but the advantage reading players gives the offense. By reading certain defenders instead of blocking them, the offensive line and any other blocker can double-team and generally wreak havoc on the rest of the defense, thus creating lots of space and running room.

Niumatalolo and others at the academies, however, have evolved the offense by not just lining up in the same flexbone set and running the veer triple and the midline option 40 times a game. (Although they're happy to do that, too, if you don't defend it well.) Instead, they will also mix in formation variations, motion, shifts, and so on to get the matchup that they want. In other words, the service academies are running a pro-style, multiple-formation, heavily game-planned, option offense.

The Flexbone Association (yes, there is a Flexbone Association) charted last year's Army-Navy game for analysis, dividing the run plays into the following categories:

  • The "Big Five": Triple Option, Midline, Zone Dive, Rocket Toss, Counter Option
  • Secondary Run Plays: Double Option, Trap, Midline Triple, Follow
  • Tertiary Run Plays: Jet, QB Sneak, Solid Rebel, Speed Option, Belly, Sack, Scramble, Fumbled Snap
  • Pass Plays: Triple Pass, Drop Back Pass

Against Army, Navy stuck with mostly Double and Triple Option, but both teams occasionally destroy teams with the Trap and Midline Options. The less familiar you are in facing this offense, the more time you are going to spend on purely the option. Your defenders are going to be drilled to take out the option, and you are going to get pummeled by traps and misdirection.

In 2011, Navy nearly looked like a run-and-shoot offense compared to Army. The Midshipmen ran 88 percent of the time on standard downs and 64 percent on passing downs, but the Black Knights one-upped them: 91 percent on standard downs and a ridiculous 76 percent on passing downs. The primary reason for this: Navy could pretend to pass the ball sometimes. Army could not, at least not when quarterback Trent Steelman was injured. While Steelman completed 53 percent of his passes and averaged 7.3 yards per pass attempt despite a 13.5 percent sack rate, Army's backup quarterbacks completed just 13 of 52 passes. Steelman returns in 2012, however, and Navy will be going with a first-year signal caller for the second straight year. Kriss Proctor was quite effective last season, but it appears the job will now fall to junior Trey Miller, who was more explosive through the air than Proctor (6.3 yards per attempt to 6.1) but wasn't as effective on the ground.

Longtime Navy fullback Alexander Teich is finally out of eligibility, but senior slotbacks Gee Gee Greene and John Howell each return; Navy's slotbacks have been incredibly explosive through the years -- the quarterback and fullback get a majority of the carries (Proctor and Teich combined for 32.1 carries per game last year), and when the linebackers get sucked into the interior, the slotbacks explode on the outside. Greene and Howell combined to gain almost as many yards (841) in 99 carries as Teich did (883) in 186. Greene was also the most frequently targeted Navy receiver as well, though 6'4 senior Brandon Turner, who averaged 13.6 yards per target last year, is intriguing. As long as Navy is staying on standard downs, they are incredibly dangerous (they ranked 13th in Standard Downs S&P+ last year), but if they fall into second-and-9 or third-and-6, the drive is probably over (they ranked 96th on passing downs).

For Army, all eyes are on Steelman and slotback Raymond Maples. The two combined for 1,758 rushing yards despite Steelman missing three games and Maples missing one. Instead of using the slotback as an element of surprise, Army leaned on theirs a bit (though he still averaged only 13 carries per game), and at times it worked beautifully. He gained 266 yards in 31 carries in a two-week span against Ball State and Tulane, and he gained 291 yards in 27 carries in two weeks against Fordham and Air Force. Steelman, meanwhile, had his moments, too; he gained 157 rushing yards (while attempting just four passes) in a near-upset of San Diego State, then threw in another 108 rushing yards (1-for-7 passing) in an upset of Northwestern. When he got hurt, Army was a little bit limited; they averaged 29.3 Adj. Points per game over the first half of the season, 27.6 in the second half.

There will be a wealth of experience around Steelman. Maples and another explosive slotback (Malcolm Brown, who is also the leading returning receiver … with seven catches for 163 yards last year) return, as do fullbacks Jared Hassin and Larry Dixon. The Black Knights must replace their top two receivers (Davyd Brooks, Jared McFarlin), but neither averaged even 2.0 adjusted yards per target; that is the definition of "replaceable."

Both offenses were reasonably decent last year and should be again in 2012. A serious question mark for both, however, comes up front. Only three linemen with starting experience (36 career starts, 26 from guard Josh Cabral) return for Navy, and only four (36 career starts, 24 from guard Frank Allen) return for Army. In a flexbone offense, the line is typically both vital and incredibly undersized, relying on cut blocks instead of pancaking opponents. If the lines are inexperienced and raw, they could get bowled over.

Defense

In 1946, down 21-18, Navy drove to the Army 3 with just 90 seconds left. But in front of 101,000 in attendance, Army stiffened, and time ran out on Navy before the Midshipmen could get off their fourth-down attempt. Army allowed just 161 points in three years (and 28 games) but needed one final stand to send Glenn Davis and Doc Blanchard off with another undefeated record.

At this point, we lean in certain directions when we think of underdog strategies on offense -- either you go with misdirection and run-heavy option, or you go with an Airraid style. We all seem to have accepted that service academies will always lean toward the former, and for undersized personnel relatively lacking in standout athleticism, it makes perfect sense. So … what do you do on defense? Army and Navy have taken different approaches to defense in recent years, and neither were even slightly effective in 2011.

First, Army. In two years under Stan Brock, the Black Knights actually figured some things out defensively. They ranked 54th in Def. F/+ in 2007, 48th in 2008, and they did so running what was a rather basic 4-3. They ganged up on the run and played aggressive pass defense, and it might have paid off for Brock had his offenses not been egregiously awful (119th in Off. F/+ in 2007, 117th in 2008). They scored a combined three points in two games versus Navy, and Brock was ousted. When Rich Ellerson took over after eight years at Cal Poly, he slowly improved the Army offense; but it seems to have come at the expense of the defense. Army ranked 40th in Def. F/+ in 2009, 75th in 2010, and 101st in 2011.

Army runs a variation of the old Desert Swarm "Double-Eagle Flex" defense, which is meant to provide ultimate flexibility -- one could rather easily shift from a 4-2-5 look to a 4-6 from play-to-play -- and give opponents matchup problems. It has been known to potentially struggle versus spread offenses, but Army doesn't necessarily face many of those. They face teams like Wake Forest, Boston College and, of course, Air Force and Navy. In theory, this aggressive, fast defense could be interesting and effective. The problem: Army has no size whatsoever. None. You can get by if you are under-sized, but you still have to meet a certain bare minimum. Last year's starting tackles averaged 243 pounds, their ends 212. Backup "tackle" Holt Zalneraitis weighed in at 6'2, 225 pounds, which is almost undersized for a linebacker. That just isn't going to get the job done.

But when you are a service academy, and you aren't exactly in the market for an instant-impact recruiting class, you have to make do with what you've got. In 2012, it appears that Army is going to double down on speed in absence of size. Instead of three tackles, a rover, a free safety and a strong safety, this year's Double-Eagle Flex will feature just two tackles, a rover, a strongside linebacker and a "bandit." Zalneraitis is now a weakside linebacker, and last year's starting free safety, Thomas Holloway, is now a rover. When you take a look at their post-spring depth chart (PDF), you see a defense that is 4-2-5 on paper, and about a 2-4-5 in practice. There is freedom in acknowledging your limitations when you cannot do anything about them. Expect Army's defense to be more aggressive and faster, but don't expect them to be any better. There are interesting playmakers here and there -- rush end Zach Watts (207 pounds) and tackle A.J. Mackey (260) combined for 13 tackles for loss last year, and sophomore rush end Colin Linkul (three sacks among 5.0 tackles) could play an interesting role if Army is ever able to force passing downs. Meanwhile, free safety Kyler Martin (only seven pounds lighter than Watts) will likely continue to roam close to the line of scrimmage, and senior Josh Jackson (five passes defended last year) could be decent. But still, there is a difference between not having much size and having none whatsoever. Army has none whatsoever.

For Navy, the underdog defense of choice is a good, old-fashioned 3-4. When the Midshipmen were racking up 19 wins in 2009-10, they were doing so with a batch of tackling-machine linebackers, an efficient run defense and picture perfect safety play. Last year, they had almost none of that. Inside linebackers Matt Warrick and Matt Brewer did their jobs, combining for 126.0 tackles, 6.0 tackles for loss and 10 passes defended. But there was not nearly enough speed on the outside beyond Brye French (6.0 tackles for loss), who moved to ILB this spring. Head coach Ken Niumatalolo and defensive coordinator Buddy Green seem to have been more than cognizant of this weakness and shuffled the linebacking corps this spring. Former quarterback Jarvis Cummings and a couple of interesting sophomores (Josh Tate, Jordan Drake) could have integral roles this fall.

While one weakness may be shored up to a certain degree, graduation has created a new one: last year's top three defensive ends, including the explosive Jabaree Tuani (13.0 tackles for loss), are gone. Undersized tackle Wes Henderson moves outside, and the Midshipmen should have all the size they need at nose guard (the top three on the depth chart average 6-foot-1, 305 pounds), but it does appear that Navy's defense could once again be lacking on the edges. Rover Tra'ves Bush provides quality in the secondary, but three of last year's top four corners are gone, for better (Navy was 119th in Passing Success Rate+, which suggests they weren't very good) or for worse (their backups probably weren't any better).

Defining Success

Considering both teams went to bowls in 2010 and neither went in 2011, the success-or-not line is pretty easy to draw: six wins or bust. And a win on December 8, of course.

Prognosis

In 2001, less than three months after 9/11, Army takes out Navy, 26-17, to complete Navy's worst season of all-time, an 0-10 campaign. The two teams combined to go just 8-59 from 2000-02, but a record crowd still filled a reconfigured Veterans Stadium, including President George W. Bush. And to say the least, overall records only told a small portion of the tale.

The 2012 versions of Army and Navy will not be among their best ever. They won't be 1945, but they won't be 2002 either. Both should once again feature tricky, relatively efficient offenses, but whoever figures out how to reestablish defensive competence should derive an advantage, both in terms of overall record (with a combined 17 games versus teams projected 80th or worse -- 10 for Navy, seven for Army -- their schedules are reasonably comparable) and head-to-head matchups.

As the landscape of college football continues to change dramatically, there should always, always, be a place for Army and Navy at the top level of the sport. They have earned it. What that means, exactly, I do not know. It might simply mean the programs continuing their current trajectory, with Navy joining the Big East in 2015, Army remaining independent. It might mean something different in the future. Regardless, though they will almost certainly never compete for a spot in a future college football playoff, in the same way that, when they play, it's "more than a game," college football is more than a money-hungry enterprise when they are a part of it.

While we’re here, let’s watch some college football videos from SB Nation’s new YouTube channel together:

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