Your Army Black Knights had a tough task this week. Maybe the toughest of the season. They had to regroup and refocus coming off a bad loss to Navy, take Term End Exams, and then prep for a bowl game against a talented SEC opponent — all in less than two weeks. The good news is that despite all their trials and tribulations, this team will get home in time for Christmas. The bad news is that focus itself will likely come at a premium despite the fact that this game offers arguably Army’s toughest test of the entire season.
Can Head Coach Jeff Monken and company finally get that signature win against a Power 5 opponent?
If they do, it won’t be because they took the easy path to get it.
Army Black Knights
Midway through the season, the Black Knights had every chance to put together a truly magical run. Alas, somewhere along the way, the team slid into the kind of inconsistency that plagued this team prior to 2017.
Army’s 2015 team put together the most maddeningly inconsistent performance of all time. They lost to FCS Fordham in the opener, had Connecticut beat but then let them off the ropes, and dropped a close game to Wake Forest off a series of late-game miscues, but then they won their first road contest in forever at Eastern Michigan, took Penn State to the wire, and nearly beat a Navy team led by Keenan Reynolds despite starting a plebe at quarterback in just his second game of the season. We saw growth that season, but we also saw the kinds of relentless errors that cost teams wins every day in college football.
The Black Knights turned the corner in 2016, but they didn’t exactly put all those mistakes behind them. They beat a 10-win Temple team to open the season — this same Temple team would go on to win the American conference — and they then smoked Rice and UTEP, but they followed that up with maddening losses to Buffalo, Duke, and North Texas, such that Army wasn’t even bowl eligible in their own right before beating Navy that year for the first time in forever.
Thankfully, Army put most of that behind them in 2017 and 2018, reaching heights that they’d not achieved in more than 20 years. The change was so stark that by the time 2020 rolled around, the Black Knights were able to finish with 9 games despite playing 6 different quarterbacks and the youngest overall team we’d seen since 2015.
Then came 2021. Army fielded by far the most talented team of the Monken-era, yet somehow focus and consistency have once again come at a premium. We’ve seen this team beat truly excellent squads from Western Kentucky, Air Force, and Liberty, but we’ve also seen them drop inexplicable losses to Ball State and a Navy team with exactly one good player.
This team, when they’ve been on, they’ve been amazing. But when they’ve been off, well, that’s been hard to believe, too.
Perhaps not coincidentally, Army’s rushing attack went off the rails at some point this season. Though they were averaging well over 300 yards/game on the ground midway through the year, they’re currently rushing for just 286.4 yards/game, which is honestly not great for a triple-option attack. This despite managing an outstanding 4.9 yards/carry. Amazingly, 2021 has seen both one best performances on a yards/carry basis and amongst the worst on a yards/game basis since that same 2015 team we talked about at the top of this section.
Maybe this explains some of the inconsistency. Who knows?
As we said on the podcast this week, this Missouri team comes into this week’s game in similar shape to Navy. They’re just 6-6, but they played a very tough schedule and got better as the season progressed. Missouri beat a good Central Michigan team to open the season, lost by a touchdown at Kentucky, lost by a touchdown at Boston College, got beat handily by Tennessee, then beat North Texas, lost badly to Texas A&M, beat Vandy, lost to Georgia, and rebounded to beat South Carolina and Florida to get bowl eligible before dropping their last game of the season to Arkansas.
For better or worse, Missouri is all offense. They’ve been putting up almost 30 points/game but have been allowing nearly 35. Worse, starting QB Connor Bazelak struggled down the stretch after coming back from injury to the point where Tigers’ Head Coach Eli Drinkowitz claimed he was going to hold an open competition to see who would get the start in the bowl game.
Even if such a thing actually occurs, it is extremely hard to believe that anyone will unseat Bazelak. Dude has completed some 65% of his passes for 2,548 yards and 16 touchdowns against just 11 interceptions and 13 sacks. Freshman QB Brady Cook has technically been more accurate with a 79.2% completion percentage — against Georgia, no less — but he’s also thrown just 24 passes this season for an average of just 4.5 yards/attempt.
The good news for Tigers fans is that — amazingly — RB Tyler Badie apparently plans to play in this game. Badie is terrific; 268 carries for 1,604 yards (6.0 yards/carry) with 14 rushing touchdowns.
Army hasn’t seen a better back all season.
But Mizzou has struggled all year on defense. The Tigers have the 125th ranked rushing defense, having allowed 228.8 rushing yards/game and a whopping 5.5 yards/carry. Boston College ran for 275 yards against this defense. Central Michigan put up 174 yards rushing on 4.5 yards/carry. North Texas managed 188 yards on 3.8 yards/carry. Hell, even FCS Southeastern Missouri ran for 294 yards and 4 touchdowns on just 36 attempts, good for an unbelievable 8.2 yards/carry in their game at Mizzou. Granted, the vast majority of that yardage came in the second half against Mizzou’s back-ups. Still, it’s not what you’d like to see in a team from the SEC.
This sets up along broadly similar lines to the game Army played against Wake Forest.
Army Rushing Attack vs. Mizzou Defense. The bottom line is that Army needs to run the ball relentlessly, maintain an overwhelming time-of-possession advantage, and win a close game late, when fatigue starts to set in on Mizzou’s defense. That’s really their only chance this week.
Army Rushing Defense vs. RB Tyler Badie. Badie is surely going to break some big plays against the Black Knights defense. However, if Army can keep him in check and force a struggling quarterback to try to win this game with his arm, well, that’s their best shot. Bazelak, or whomever starts, may still put up some points, but if Badie and the Mizzou running game get into a groove, the Black Knights will be in real trouble. The defense has not been great against the pass this season, but they’ve gotten shredded whenever teams have also been able to run the ball.
The Army Team vs. Consistency and Distractions. Loss to Navy, TEE Week, and now a bowl game on a short turnaround. This is a tough ask, especially for a team that’s not always been able to muster its best stuff in the biggest circumstances.
This feels like a game that Army can win if they play their best ball. But will they?
This is an important game. A Black Knight win off a strong performance probably means that this team is still on track, that they’ve got a few things to fix over the offseason, but that they’ll bounce back and get the breaks they need to get back on stride next year. A loss, though, especially a bad loss, probably means trouble.
Are we rebuilding in 2022, or are we just reloading for another big year?
We’ll probably find out this Wednesday.
Army started as a 3.5-point favorite, but the line has since slid in the Black Knights’ direction, so that they’re now favored by 4. Which is honestly a *terrible* line. This is a tough game against a superior opponent for a team that has had exactly zero success against quality squads from the Power 5. Coming off both the disaster against Navy and the existential distraction of Term End Exams, there is literally no reason whatsoever to believe that Army will show up this weekend.
This team has been boom-or-bust in 2021. We literally have no idea which version will take the field Wednesday night.
Moreover, if Army wins, it will be because they played great, not because things simply went to plan. If things just go to plan, Missouri will win this game by 14 or more points. The Tigers are bigger, they’ve played better down the stretch, they’re hungrier, and they’ve had more time off. Really, the fact that RB Tyler Badie has opted into this game tells you all that you need to know. These guys want it — bad. So the Black Knights only really have a chance if they show up with their very best stuff, stuff that we haven’t seen since back in November.
The weather should be good for this game. Wednesday’s high in Dallas will be in the mid-60s, though it’ll probably be somewhat cooler by game time. Maybe mid-50s, cooling to the upper-40s as the game progresses.
Kickoff is scheduled for 8 pm. ESPN has coverage. As always, As For Football recommends that you mute your TV and listen to Rich DeMarco’s radio call via the Varsity app whenever TV coverage comes from ESPN.
The Army West Point Black Knights and Missouri Tigers have officially accepted invitations to play in the 2021 Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl. The #BowlForTheBrave will be played on December 22nd at 7:00CT. @MizzouFootball @ArmyWP_Football— LM Armed Forces Bowl (@ArmedForcesBowl) December 6, 2021
Ticket Link: https://t.co/IqCg8hbaar pic.twitter.com/rIgc7A5FyG