Midwest Mayhem – A Runover of the Flyovers
For all you Army fans who refer to sneakers as tennis shoes or who think cow-tipping is a fun Saturday night activity, it is my pleasure to present: Midwest Mayhem. This week’s preview explores Army’s fourth, fifth, and sixth games, each against a Midwest foe.
Quick Army update: The Army teams looks good this week and whoever is making the weight room hype videos is killing it!
— Army Football (@ArmyWP_Football) April 21, 2021
Note: Preseason SP+ rankings are given below in parentheses, along with adjusted points away from the mean. These are used to set betting lines. SP+ has Army at #72 (-0.6), meaning that they’d be a half-point underdog to an “average” college football team on a neutral site. With 130 teams in FBS college football, the “average” in this case is a purely mathematical construct, but the rankings are still an occasionally useful metric as part of a discussion of preseason expectations.
September 25th – Miami-OH (SP+ #110, -13.2)
The Miami RedHawks had a significantly shortened MAC-only season last year, finishing with a 2-1 record. Officially, this is the first time the RedHawks have had consecutive winning campaigns since 2004-05. Their biggest win this past year came during the first weekend of MACtion, scoring a home upset over eventual Mid-American champions, Ball State. Alas, Miami dropped their next game to the other division champion, Buffalo, 42-10, while allowing over 550 yards of total offense. Their final game was a decisive 38-7 victory over a lackluster Akron squad.
Miami doesn’t have a spring game scheduled as of this writing. But looking forward, the entire RedHawk quarterback room is returning. We should see an early season battle between AJ Mayer and Brett Gabbert for the starting job. The biggest threat on the offensive side is returning 5th year senior WR Jack Sorenson.1 Sorenson averaged a whopping 118 yards receiving last year. Army’s secondary will have to hold Sorenson down this September in order to keep the score low. The leading Redhawk rusher last year, Zach Kahn, will not be returning. The RedHawk backs to keep your eyes on going forward are Davion Johnson and Kevin Davis, who averaged a combined 29 yards per game last season.
Miami’s game against Buffalo last year occurred before RB Jaret Patterson’s late season breakout rushing performance versus Kent State. With that, and because their overall season provides an at best small sample size, it’s hard to tell how good the RedHawks will be at defending the run. Last season, though, their red zone defense was decidedly mediocre. Opposing offenses scored an average of just under 5 points per trip to the deep end. If the RedHawks can’t improve where it counts, Army is liable to make then pay. Regardless, field position in this game will be key. Good thing we have the punter for it!
Some of Yesterday’s Action! ??
— Miami Football (@MiamiOHFootball) April 14, 2021
October 2nd – Ball State (SP+ #71, -0.4)
This match-up against Ball State on the road marks the start of a three-game set that just might be the very toughest part of Army’s schedule. In fact, the game itself will likely be the second toughest of the Black Knights’ season. Notably, this is a makeup game, unconnected to the upcoming two-game home and home series slated for 2023 and 2024. Rather, this contest was originally contracted way back in 2009 but was then pushed back during the 2017 season.2
The defending MAC Champions posted only one loss last year, against Miami (OH). They lost that game 38-31. But the Cardinals turned it around quickly, winning every other game, including both the MAC Championship Game against Buffalo and the Arizona Bowl against the best San Jose State team in memory.
The Cardinals’ offense was an experienced, senior-heavy group this past year. But since the NCAA gave every college athlete an extra year of eligibility, some of those seniors are coming back. Though Cardinals’ leading RB Caleb Huntley and WR Antwan Davis decided to go pro,3 starting QB Drew Plitt and leading WR Justin Hall are both coming back for super senior seasons. That ought to help the Cardinals quite a bit.
It’s always hard to judge the defense of a team that doesn’t often see the option. The Cardinals haven’t seen it since they last played Army back in 2014. However, they see some solid rushing attacks in the MAC and did a good job containing them last year, allowing just 136 rushing yards/game. What that means for the Black Knights, however, remains an open question.
We’ll see more from Cardinals’ camp on May 1st when they play their spring game. 4
Reset and Refocus.
— Ball State Football (@BallStateFB) February 26, 2021
October 16th – Wisconsin (SP+ #9, 22.4)
Wisconsin is by far and away Army’s toughest, most powerful opponent this year. The Badgers will be the Black Knight’s second Big Ten opponent in the past three seasons and their third in five years. This is a big game. Army suffered a heartbreaking double overtime loss two years ago in Ann Arbor. They should have won that game. Now Army fans are hungry for a signature win over a Power 5 program, while the coaching staff and the players themselves are no doubt salivating.
The Badgers are coming off a fairly disappointing year in 2020. The presumed West Division champions finished Big Ten play at just 3-3 before beating Wake Forest in the Duke’s Mayo Bowl to go 4-3 overall. Redshirt freshman QB Graham Mertz was supposed to secure Wisconsin’s place atop the Big Ten-West going forward. Despite boasting a top 10 defense, though, the Badgers found a way to lose three games. Worse, Wisconsin scored a measly 20 combined points in those games.
Mertz is Wisconsin’s biggest question this offseason. When he played well last year, the Badgers won. When he struggled, Wisconsin turned the ball over repeatedly.5 That cost them. Mertz’s defender’s point to last year’s shortened offseason and limited preparation time as the keys to Mertz’s struggles and note that this year ought to be different. But what are they supposed to say? Truth is, no one is going to know what the Badgers have at quarterback until we see Mertz play again.
Can Army Really Beat Wisconsin?
Short answer: yes.
Army has a bye week heading into this contest, while the Badgers have to travel to Illinois. Not that the Illini are a super tough team, but you can never go into a Big Ten road game unprepared. That makes preparing for the triple-option much, much more challenging.
Moreover, look at Wisconsin’s losses. In two of their losses, they had more total yards of offense than their opponent. They averaged 311 yards per loss, just 35 yards per game under their average. The reason for their losses was poor discipline. In those three games, they lost the turnover battle 9-3. They also totaled 21 penalties for 190 yards. Their opponents had just 8 penalties for 70 yards in that same span.
With all of that said, this remains the hardest game on Army’s schedule. Vegas will bet heavily on Wisconsin. So let’s keep an optimistic view but not be unrealistic. Army can win. However, there is also a chance that the Black Knights can do everything right and still lose, too.
We've got something cooking ? pic.twitter.com/ujzgFdCFGs
— Wisconsin Football (@BadgerFootball) April 15, 2021
Second Quarter Expectations
This is the hardest quarter Army has this season. The Black Knights offense will need to get into midseason form to have a chance in these games. Last year, though, we never really got there. The result wasn’t awful, but the lack of spring and summer practice certainly didn’t help Army’s offensive cohesiveness.
The Black Knights ought to be favored by something like a touchdown or maybe ten points against Miami (Ohio). Ball State might be a field goal favorite if current trends hold. Really, the best bet in this second quarter might be at Wisconsin, who should theoretically be 25-point favorites. The Black Knights may not win this game, but if recent trends hold, they surely ought to cover that massive spread.
1. Mark Schmetzer, “RedHawks played only three games due to COVID-19 issues,” Dayton Daily News, Dec. 11, 2020.
2. Kevin Kelley, “Ball State to play Maine in 2020, Army in 2023, 2024,” FBSchedules, Feb. 22, 2019.
3. Justin Guskey, “Many BSU football players’ careers could have ended in 2020, but they’re returning for a chance to ‘Run. It. Back’,” Muncie Star Press, Jan. 9, 2021.
4. “Ball State Football Schedule,” FBSchedules.
5. Ben Kenney, “2021 Wisconsin football position preview: Quarterback,” BadgersWire (USA Today), April 13, 2021.
— Army Football (@ArmyWP_Football) April 26, 2021
Go Army! Beat Georgia State!!!
* Cover image via @ArmyWP_Football.