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Army Vs. Navy Game 2011: Can The Cadets Close The Gap?

Navy is experiencing its worst season since 2002. Can Army finally close the gap and beat the Midshipmen for the first time in a decade? Or can they at least stay within single digits?

PHILADELPHIA - DECEMBER 11: Army Cadets cheer during a game against the Navy Midshipmen on December 11 2010 at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia Pennsylvania. The Midshipmen won 31-17. (Photo by Hunter Martin/Getty Images)
PHILADELPHIA - DECEMBER 11: Army Cadets cheer during a game against the Navy Midshipmen on December 11 2010 at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia Pennsylvania. The Midshipmen won 31-17. (Photo by Hunter Martin/Getty Images)
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The shared fight songs ... the pomp and circumstance ... the men in uniform ... the other men in uniform. There are plenty of reasons to watch Army play Navy every year. And unless you actually attended one of the institutions (or love somebody who did), things like "Who won?" or "Was either team actually any good?" are probably not among the reasons.

(This might mean you don't care to read a preview about it either. Well, it's too late. You've clicked. You might as well finish this thing now.)

To the extent that one does care about the results instead of the process itself, it hasn't been hard to keep track of winners in the last few years. The winner since 2002: Navy, Navy, Navy, Navy, Navy, Navy, Navy, Navy and Navy. In hiring Paul Johnson to replace Charlie Weatherbie in 2002, then keeping Ken Niumatalolo after Johnson left for Georgia Tech, the Midshipmen have surpassed their rivals with better coaching -- since 2003, they have finished with a winning season every year, winning 74 games to Army's 30.

In recent history, Navy has played at a much higher level than have the Cadets, but this season, the first since erstwhile quarterback (and future president) Ricky Dobbs' eligibility ran out, has seen a significant step backwards for the folks from Annapolis. Even with a tenth straight win over Army, the 4-7 Middies have still clinched their worst record since 2002, Johnson's first at the school. What's changed?

For the most part, it has nothing to do with Dobbs' departure. Navy's general offensive ratings have been fine -- they rank 33rd in Off. F/+ and 21st in Rushing S&P+. In the Dobbs era, they topped out at 14th in Off. F/+ and 35th in Rushing S&P+. Sure, they throw the ball a little worse (and more frequently, for some reason), especially on passing downs, but peripherally speaking, the offense has not been the problem.

Quarterback Kriss Proctor has produced a Navy-esque stat line -- 774 passing yards, seven touchdowns and six interceptions, with a boatload [Editor's note: boats!] of carries (17.9 per game) with decent, grinding success (817 yards, 4.6 per carry, 12 touchdowns). Fullback Alexander Teich is averaging 4.7 yards per carry, and slotbacks Gee Gee Greene and John Howell have combined for 791 yards at 8.7 yards per carry. Everything looks about right here.

The defense, on the other hand, has been absolutely horrendous. A 3-4 defense will struggle when it doesn't have any linebackers, and in losing Tyler Simmons, Aaron McCauley, Jerry Hauburger and safety Wyatt Middleton, they were basically starting from scratch this season. After ranking 50th and 73rd in Def. F/+ in 2009-10, they have plummeted to 116th in 2011. It goes without saying that this is a precipitous drop.

  • Def. S&P+
    Six-Year Average Rank: 91st | 2011: 114th
  • Def. Success Rate+
    Six-Year Average Rank: 101st | 2011: 116th
  • Def. PPP+
    Six-Year Average Rank: 87th | 2011: 109th
  • Def. Rushing S&P+
    Six-Year Average Rank: 87th | 2011: 112th
  • Def. Passing S&P+
    Six-Year Average Rank: 96th | 2011: 111th
  • Def. Standard Downs S&P+
    Six-Year Average Rank: 98th | 2011: 118th

Despite the fact that end Jabaree Tuani (35.0 tackles, 12.0 TFL/sacks, 3 FF, 2 FR) has been statistically impressive, the defense just hasn't had much juice. They are able to rush the passer slightly better than normal, and a secondary that includes two freshmen -- safety Chris Ferguson (30.0 tackles, 2 INT, 2 FF, 3 PBU) and corner Parrish Gaines (24.5 tackles in six games) -- hasn't actually been that awful, but it hasn't mattered because they haven't been able to force passing downs. Like, ever. Navy is 116th in Leverage Rate (the ratio of standard downs to overall plays). Now they face an offense that ranks fifth in the same category.

Now, by no means has Army surpassed Navy overall. After a rare winning season (their first since 1996), the Cadets have fallen to 3-8 themselves, ranking 107th in overall F/+ (Navy: 84th). They should by no means be able to stop Proctor, Teich, Greene and company, but their efficiency on offense could allow them to compete and stick around for a while. Despite missing three games with an ankle injury, quarterback Trent Steelman has rushed for 583 yards and 11 touchdowns, and he has two interesting weapons in Raymond Maples (984 yards, 7.4 per carry, four touchdowns) and Malcolm Brown (490 yards, 7.0 per carry, two touchdowns). Army is lacking in both explosiveness and any semblance of a passing game, however -- they are 110th in Off. Passing S&P+, they have completed just 36 percent of their passes for the year, and only one cadet (Davyd Brooks) has more than seven catches in 2011 -- and that typically finishes off drives long before they reach the end zone. Still, if they never fall into passing downs, they could stick around a while.

"Sticking around" alone would be a relative step forward; during Navy's nine-game series winning streak, no game has been closer than 12 points. In three seasons under Rich Ellerson, Army has closed the gap at least a bit (they lost by 14 in each of the last two seasons after averaging a 30-point loss the seven previous years), and they will have another opportunity to do so, but it appears that even a less impressive Navy squad still has a step on its historical (to say the least) rivals to the North.