Having dropped their last road game to the Troy Trojans, your Army Black Knights now have two games to try to get right before their biggest game of the season — the Army-Navy Game. It’s a tough task this week, however, as they face the best young team in the Northeast and one of the best feel-good stories of the entire college football year.
Yes, friends, the once lowly UConn Huskies beat #19 Liberty last week to earn their first bowl bid since 2015. They’re young, emotional, and more than a little prone to self-destructive mistakes, but they also play hard and have more than enough heart and talent to come back from whatever college football has thrown at them this season.
Army Black Knights
The Black Knights have taken two tough losses in a row, and it’s frustrating because they’ve looked a lot more like the team we expected to see ever since the ULM game. They’ve played much, much better run defense while continuing to play good pass defense, and with that, they’ve forced more punts and therefore gotten their defense off the field with much greater regularity. The Black Knights are now allowing less than 200 rushing yards/game while giving up just 182 passing yards/game. Those aren’t elite numbers, necessarily, but they’ve led to 6 sacks, an outstanding 16 tackles for loss, and 12 net punts in the last two games. That’s pretty good! Teams were converting something like 45% of their 3rd downs against the Army defense before ULM. Lately, that number has been closer to 30% or 35%.
All of that shows tremendous improvement.
Army’s offense is still humming, too, for the most part. On average, this team is rushing for a whopping 5.6 yards/carry and 299.4 yards/game. That is 2nd on a yards/game basis and 10th when measured in yards/carry. Granted, the Black Knights usually get into the Top 3 in terms of rushing yards/game. It’s much, much rarer that they get into the Top 10 in yards/carry. For all of the faults we’ve seen this season, Army’s offense remains perhaps the most explosive it’s been in the Monken Era.
Alas, none of this has translated into wins, largely because the team continues to struggle with turnovers. Despite forcing 4 turnovers in the last three games, the Black Knights have held steady in total turnover margin at -3. It’s very hard to win when you’re under .500 on turnover margin. Worse, the Black Knights have become relatively unreliable in short-yardage rushing situations, which is crazy considering how successfully they’ve been running the football overall. But this team has converted just 52% of their 4th downs this season (63rd), a horrendously low rate that’s exacerbated their turnover problem exponentially. This team has attempted 25 short-yardage 4th down conversions and succeeded on just 13 of them.
Similarly, Army’s offense held the ball for more than 37 minutes last week at Troy, and at the end of all of that time, Troy’s defensive line was run-blitzing Army’s offense, getting excellent penetration, and blowing up plays in the backfield with reckless abandon. How does an offense hold the ball that long and run that many plays, and at the end of it all, get absolutely smoked by the opposing defense?
Rushing offenses are supposed to get better over the course of games when they’re having success. However, with the exception of the ULM game, we’ve not seen that at all this season. Along with Army’s issues converting in short yardage situations, this represents a serious structural concern. This team has outstanding athletes who get good chunk yardage when they get loose in space. However, they’re not making it happen in the trenches. That’s the inverse of our expectation for an Army Football team, and I think it’s why they haven’t necessarily looked like Army Football all season long.
I never thought I would say this, friends, but UConn is good. They really are.
The Huskies have not had it easy this season. They opened on the road at Utah State and lost their would-be starting quarterback, Penn State transfer Ta’Quan Roberson, in the first half of their first game to a season-ending injury. Roberson had attempted just 2 passes and run the ball all of 3 times when he went out, giving way to true freshman QB Zion Turner. Turner came in stone cold, and they didn’t let him do anything but run the ball and throw screen passes all game, and UConn still had a chance to win entering the 4th quarter on the road.
As you might expect, Turner has improved dramatically over the course of the season. As of last week, he has gone 126/207 passing for 1,126 yards (60.9%) with 9 touchdowns against just 5 interceptions, though he’s also taken 17 sacks. Turner is not the runner that Roberson can be, but he leads a good rushing attack and more than does his part. On the season, he has 79 carries for 204 yards (2.6 yards/carry) but no touchdowns. Indeed, the Huskies overall put up an average of just 20.1 points/game. They’re a good power running team, but they still average just 4.6 yards/carry overall.
Bottom line: they’re not outsourcing anyone.
Instead, the strength of this Huskies team is its defense. LB Jackson Mitchell is maybe the best unsung hero in all of college football. Mitchell has *117* tackles, 47 solo, plus 4.5 sacks, 3 passes defensed, 1 interception, 2 forced fumbles, and *5* fumble recoveries. This man is a beast. He is the best, most talented linebacker that the Army Black Knights will have seen all season. He is young, hungry, and fully capable of wrecking their shit.
The Huskies have 25 sacks this season plus 35 passes defensed, 12 interceptions, 8 forced fumbles, and 8 fumble recoveries. This defense gets penetration and flat murders people. They allow 153 rushing yards/game on 4.2 yards/carry (73rd), but that doesn’t matter because they force so many takeaways. Indeed, UConn is +4 on takeaways this season, and that’s with a true freshman quarterback who’s thrown 5 interceptions plus a team total 11 fumbles lost.
Remember, too, that UConn started with a 1-4 stretch that included bad losses to Syracuse, Michigan, and NC State. Since then, this team has gone 5-1 with wins over Mountain West-leading Fresno State, Boston College, regional rival UMass, and then 19th-ranked Liberty.
UConn has a young team that is only just learning to play complimentary football. Really, they’ve only just scratched the surface of what they can be in the next few years. First year UConn Head Coach Jim Mora has done an outstanding job turning this program into something of which players and fans alike can be proud.
Keys to the Game
As we said, UConn has a young team. They make at least as many mistakes as any team in college football. They are one of college football’s most-penalized teams, they’ve got a true freshman quarterback, and their running game is good but not remotely great.
If Army can just hold the ball and convert 3rd downs, they’ll win this game easily. However, holding the ball is a seriously tough ask against this aggressive, ball-hawking defense.
My TEAM of the DAY thus far is CONNECTICUT that beat 8-1 LIBERTY who last week beat @RazorbackFB of the @SEC .The job @CoachJimMoraFB is doing with @UConnFootball is awesome. Bowl Eligible / same with job @CoachMikeElko is doing with @DukeFOOTBALL— Dick Vitale (@DickieV) November 12, 2022
The Black Knights come into this game favored by 10 points at home. That is madness, not least because of the game’s psychology. The Black Knights just blew bowl eligibility with two consecutive losses in games where they had what looked to be commanding leads headed into halftime. It feels like the team has forgotten how to close out games. Now they face this ferocious UConn defense that has already knocked off heavily favored rivals in back-to-back weeks.
This game is not going to be easy.
Saturday promises partly cloudy skies with temperatures in the mid- to upper-30s. It’s gonna be cold out there! The Over/Under for this game sits at 43.5, and I’m telling you, there is no way they hit that total.
As always with home games, CBS Sports has coverage. Kickoff goes at noon.
Go Army! Beat UConn!!!
Cover image via Flickr: The U.S. Military Academy.