Friends, your Army Black Knights may not have gotten off to their best ever start. Over the last three weeks, however, they’ve gotten healthier and started to look a lot more like the team we expected them to be this season. Moreover, despite going 3-4 through the first seven games, this team still has all of its major goals within its reach. That starts in earnest this weekend when the Black Knights travel to Dallas, Texas, to take on Air Force in the 2022 Commander’s Classic.
Buckle up, everyone. This is liable to be one wild ride.
Army Black Knights
Army’s offense has been good throughout the season, but they’ve hit a new gear in the last few games. As of this writing, Army is 2nd in the nation in rushing, averaging 334.6 rushing yards/game and putting up 25 rushing touchdowns on the ground on a whopping 6.0 yards/carry. On a per carry basis, Army actually has the nation’s very best rushing attack, ranked just ahead of mighty Alabama.
Friends, that is actually incredible.
The Black Knights’ primary problem this season has been turnovers. Despite getting into plus territory in both of the last two games, the Black Knights remain at -3 on turnover margin overall this season. That’s not how this team wins, and indeed, the biggest difference between the ULM game and the Georgia State game was the 2 turnovers the Black Knights committed in the first half versus the Panthers. This team absolutely has all of the tools it needs to get where it wants to go, but first the players have to hold onto the ball.
The other big issue this week is Army’s rushing defense. The Black Knights have allowed fully 212.4 rushing yards/game over the first half of the season on nearly 5.5 yards/carry. That’s ain’t great. Granted, part of this has clearly come via scheme. Army’s defense has prioritized playing the pass in its early season games — as well they might against some of these explosive Sun Belt passing attacks. Still, on a per carry basis, the Black Knights rank 126th out of 131 FBS rushing defenses. This is a legitimate concern with the nation’s best rushing attack (by cumulative yardage, at least) on the slate this week, even with the understanding that the Black Knights tend to play the triple-option very well and that they’ve been much better in goal line and short yardage situations all season.
Air Force Falcons
The Air Force Falcons have a much better record than the Black Knights. They come into this game 5-3, 2-3 in the Mountain-West’s Mountain Division. But. They’ve beaten FCS Northern Iowa, Colorado (1-7), Nevada (2-7), Navy (3-5), and UNLV (4-4), and what all those teams have in common is that none of them are particularly good. Meanwhile, the Zoomies have lost to Wyoming (6-3), Utah State (3-5), and Boise State (6-2), creating an obvious pattern.
That pattern exists on the basis of records clearly, but it also exists through the Zoomies’ offensive scheme. Bottom line, teams that have stopped Air Force FB Brad Roberts have beaten Air Force, full stop. Indeed, where in the past we might’ve thought of Air Force as having a generally more dynamic offense than Army has, this year the Zoomies are running something much closer to the Army offense circa 2016-2017. It starts with the fullback, which isn’t new, but it’s now almost entirely based on those classic Army midline plays that the Black Knights used to run with Ahmad Bradshaw and Darnell Woolfolk.
Midline Option, Inside Veer, Fullback Trap. This is what you’re going to see on Saturday, but now even more — much more! — than usual.
Not surprisingly, Roberts leads the team in rushing. He has 174 carries for 943 yards (5.4 yards/carry) and 13 touchdowns. Friends, that is 36.6% of Air Force’s total offense by carries, 35% of their total rushing yardage, and 52% of their rushing touchdowns. Add in QB Haaziq Daniels’s 80 carries for 358 yards (4.5 yards/carry) and 4 rushing touchdowns, and we’re up to 53.5% of the total offensive carries, 48.3% of the rushing yardage, and 68% of the total rushing touchdowns. Mind you, those statistics are all inclusive. If we could somehow factor out garbage time, when Air Force emptied their benches once they got up big on the scoreboard, those percentages would go up considerably.
It’s worth nothing here that Daniels appears to have regressed as a passer. He was previously a 50% or even a 55% completion percentage passer. This year, however, he’s gone just 27/57 for 579 yards (47.4%) with 5 touchdowns, an interception, and 7 sacks. Granted, this is not some enormous regression. However, it is an interesting statistic in an offense that is already struggling to stay multi-dimensional.
Where Air Force has been much, much better than Army is on defense, especially rushing defense. After eight games, the Zoomies rank 42nd in rushing defense, having allowed 126.4 rushing yards/game on 4.2 yards/carry. Moreover, Air Force has the country’s 9th ranked scoring defense, allowing just 16.8 points/game. All of that is pretty good, especially in comparison to Army’s efforts so far this season. In a game that may well turn on field position, it may also matter that the Zoomies are averaging about 44 yards/punt, which is maybe 10 yards/punt more than the Black Knights.
I’ve got three, and you’ve probably already guessed two of them.
Army Defense vs. FB Brad Roberts
If Air Force gets FB Brad Roberts going, then they are going to win this game. It’ws that simple. If, however, the Black Knights can hold Roberts to something like 3 or even 3.5 yards/carry, then Army will have an excellent chance.
Roberts averaged 3.6 yards/carry against Boise State, 3.4 yards/carry against Wyoming, and 4.7 yards/carry against Utah State. Utah State was the only one of those games in which Air Force rushed for more than 200 yards. By contrast, he’s been at or above 5 yards/carry in all the games they’ve won save Navy, and even at Navy, a defensive struggle if ever there was one, Roberts averaged 4.7 yards/carry.
Just looking at trends, we could argue that Roberts has to average at least 4.5 yards/carry for the Zoomies to have a realistic chance. However, if he goes over 5 yards/carry, then Army is probably screwed.
Army Offense vs. Turnovers
Army has moved the ball on a bunch of good defenses this year, and as good as Air Force has been defensively, the Black Knights have run plenty on teams that give up 4.2 yards/carry.
The question isn’t, “Can Army move the ball?” They definitely can. The question is, “Can Army hold onto the ball?”
More than any other factor, the turnover battle will determine who wins and who loses this weekend. This has been true for the Black Knights in every game this season, and it remains true now.
Texas vs. Air Force
Army always plays well in Texas. Half the team is from Texas, and we ought to expect a big, hyper-partisan Go Army crowd in an ostensibly neutral site game this weekend because the game is in Texas. In some ways, I actually feel better about this game being in Texas than I would if the game was in Michie Stadium.
The betting line on this game opened at Army (+5.5) and has since slid to nearly Army (+7). This is a little surprising. Air Force comes into this game favored by about a touchdown every year, and it’s been close every year with the Black Knights usually finding a way to win right at the end. Psychologically speaking, they would much rather be underdogs. The Army coaching staff must be delighted by this line and hoping that it trends even stronger towards the Zoomies.
Similarly, the Over/Under opened at 39.5 and has since risen all the way to 47.5. That is a terrible bet. There is no way that these two teams, who know each other and their offenses incredibly well, will go over 47.5. It’s just not gonna happen. Air Force was much, much more dynamic and explosive last year, and Army was almost as explosive, and these two teams still put up just 35 total points, and that was with an Overtime period.
I think maybe some of these bettors just aren’t looking at the right stuff this week.
Should be a beautiful day in the Greater Dallas area on Saturday with mostly sunny skies and temperatures in the mid- to upper-60s. Not that it matters. This game will be played inside.
Kickoff is scheduled for 11:30 ET, 10:30 CT with coverage on CBS. I’m excited. This should be a good one.
Go Army! Beat Air Force!!!
*Cover image via USMA Flickr. For what it’s worth, this was maybe my favorite shot from all of last season.