Army Football met Rice at Michie Stadium for both teams’ season opener last night, and despite some sloppy, even ugly play at times, the Black Knights found a way to get the win. That’s not nothing. Winning is never easy in college football, and it’s especially tough for Army, doubly so in season-openers when the other team has spent their entire offseason preparing for the triple-option. Even so, there were some alarming signs in this game, things that this team will need to get corrected immediately if they want to return to a bowl game in 2019.
I drove up to West Point early yesterday afternoon. The weekday scheduling let me stop by the Visitor’s Center to re-up my Grad Pass. That was too good an opportunity to pass up, and indeed, I was hardly the only Old Grad there to get my credentials. The line went fast, thankfully, and afterwards I wandered the Visitor’s Center and stopped by the gift shop.
The Academy has done a lot to try to smooth out traffic flow coming on-post. There are now two lanes heading into Thayer Gate, separated by parking assignment. There wasn’t a lot of traffic when I went through at 2 pm, but I have high hopes for the new traffic control plan going forward.
I parked on Thayer Roof just as my friend and classmate Ray was knocking off for the day. It turns out that he’s now both the Director of the Center for Junior Officers and the Academy’s Chief of Faculty Development. He’s also full colonel, and I have to say that it still gives me a sense of vertigo seeing my classmates with eagles on their hats and collars. We turned around and went back into Ray’s office, and he showed me around. Ray’s got quite a collection of trophies now, and his primary work — teaching field grade commanders to conduct worthwhile professional development sessions — looks legitimately fascinating.
I finally headed up to the lots around 3 pm. Of course, my friends Amber and Matt were running late, so I crashed the Class of ‘84 tailgate until my friends got set up some time around 4 pm. It occurs to me now, because I have a truly massive headache, that I should probably have eaten something more than a simple chicken salad sandwich at this point, but friends, that’s just not how it went down. Instead, we split my growler of habanero IPA before going to work on some gins-and-tonic.
It was great seeing my friends. Amber and I met as cadet candidates on our recruiting visits with the Army Swim Team; she met Matt when he was my cow year roommate. We’ve been friends forever, and now they’re family.
We finally headed down to the stadium about 5:30 pm. The parachute jump looked great, and the Corps was fired up. Army won the toss and deferred and then stopped the Owls’ opening drive after a single first down.
And then the wheels came off.
Army drove 9 yards in four plays, turning the ball over on down at its own 15 yard line with 11:57 left to play in the first quarter. The vaunted Black Knights’ O-Line got absolutely worked. Army’s defense held, and then they caught a break when Rice’s kicker missed a chipshot field goal, but if there was any justice in this world, Rice would’ve taken the lead 3-0 right then and there.
As is often the case, those missed points would prove important later.
Again, the Black Knights got the ball deep in their own end. Kell Walker ripped off a nice-looking 11 yard run, but then the offense stalled — again. Army’s interior O-Line couldn’t move the Owls’ D-Line, and it looked like the Black Knights’ tackles were getting beat around the edges by Rice’s defensive ends. The Fullback Dive had gone nowhere in that first drive, and now neither QB Kelvin Hopkins Jr. nor any of his slotbacks could find any running room off-tackle or further outside.
Army finally made some adjustments and got something going in their third series, but though they put together a 16-play, 95-yard drive, the offense still looked decidedly out of sync. Hopkins found a little running room early, and they got a nice reverse and a good-looking catch from WR Christian Hayes, but the offensive staples still weren’t effective. Despite the touchdown, FB Sandon McCoy finished this drive with 7 carries for all of 15 yards. He finished the first half with 9 carries for 23 yards, just under 2.6 yards/carry. That’s not gonna get it done.
The Class of 95 took a members-and-family shot at halftime. Might’ve been my favorite moment of the game, being honest. We had quite a few folks in the stands, and we’ve got quite a few coming in the next generation, too.
I thought the team would come out on fire in the second half, but they went four plays and a punt in their first drive, six plays and a fumble in their second, and another three plays and a punt in their third. All of that was terrible. Granted, Army’s defense managed to hold Rice to just 7 points, 5 punts, and two missed field goals, but that’s with Rice’s redshirt freshman quarterback going an underwhelming 7/14 passing (50%) for all of 62 yards. He was victimized by at least egregious 2 drops, but still…
Rice RB Nashon Ellerbe got outside for one long touchdown run, and in fact, he was arguably the best player on the field. Ellerbe carried 9 times for 103 yards (11.4 yards/carry!) and a touchdown, pacing a Rice team that collectively ran 30 times for 181 yards (6.0 yards/carry). That’ll usually get you beat, and if Rice had either a field goal kicker or an even slightly effective passing game, it would have gotten Army beat, too.
We hit the 4th quarter tied 7-7, and from the stands, it looked like the Army Team’s leadership finally realized at last that if they didn’t get it together right then and there, they were gonna leave Michie last night with a loss. Hopkins put the team on his back. Army fullbacks collectively carried 7 times for 26 yards in this last drive, and that was better, but their quarterback was the key. It was like he made a decision to win the game, and the offense took their cues from that. Hopkins carried 7 times for 44 yards (6.3 yards/carry) in this one drive, and he threw one 17-yard touchdown pass to SB Kell Walker, and that is the only reason why Army won. Hopkins absolutely carried his team to victory, and with that, Army’s offense finally looked like Army.
Rice got the ball down 7 with just under 3:00 to play. They drove all the way to the Army 26, where they got down to 4th-and-1. On a night when they averaged 6 yards/carry, they decided to put the game in their quarterback’s hands, and he couldn’t quite make a play. S Jaylon McClinton broke it up as the receiver was going to the ground. That was not good play-calling to say the very least, but it gave Army the victory, so I guess I’ll take it.
— CBS Sports Network (@CBSSportsNet) August 31, 2019
— CBS Sports Network (@CBSSportsNet) August 31, 2019
Keys to Victory
1. Hold onto the football. Nope. The Black Knights had one fumble at a critical spot, and against a better team, it would have cost them the game.
2. Run the Damn Ball! Nope. The triple-option offense needs to rush for at least 300 yards to be successful. Army was nowhere near that.
3. Throw the ball… a little. Check. Though Hopkins went just 3/8 passing, all three completions were critical, clutch throws.
4. Don’t get cocky. Nope. It’s impossible to get inside the team’s head, of course, but this was not an auspicious start. This team couldn’t pick up a 4th-and-1 early and then wound up punting 4 times, and that was against a team that last year allowed almost 5 yards/carry.
We saw what it looked like when Army finally committed. That final drive, that’s what commitment looks like. Before that, though…
5. Own time-of-possession. Check. Army held the ball for almost 35 minutes, gaining nearly 10 minutes’ advantage. Both teams were trying to run the ball and control the clock, so that’s a significant win.
Army finished with a better stat line than overall performance. 56 carries for 231 yards rushing isn’t great, but 4.1 yards/carry is basically respectable. As noted, Hopkins went 3/8 passing (37.5%) for 53 yards and a touchdown. That’s also not great, but he didn’t throw a pick, and he did throw the ball away when the play wasn’t there. That’s good. The Black Knights also finished 9/15 (60%) on 3rd downs, which is amazing considering how many times they punted. On defense, they held the Owls to just 44 offensive plays. As much as anything, that was why they won.
Army travels to the Big House to take on Michigan. Friends, if these Black Knights can’t get their crap together before kickoff with the Wolverines, they’re gonna get curb-stomped.
I’m having a lot of people over, but I’m not feeling super-optimistic.