Army Football beat the Hell out of Air Force this past weekend, reviving their season and putting themselves on the inside track to capture the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy in Boston this December. The team ran the ball and stopped the run, and not coincidentally, they also forced *6* turnovers.
Army now faces a high-leverage game at home against Patriot League leader Holy Cross (6-3, 4-1 in the League) this Saturday. With a win, the Black Knights can build real momentum for the first time this season as they head into the closing stretch. That would set them up nicely for big games against Coastal Carolina and Navy, potentially allowing them to rewrite the story of their 2023 campaign.
We're returning to Michie on Saturday! pic.twitter.com/Snw8tCexML— Army Football (@ArmyWP_Football) November 6, 2023
Holy Cross Crusaders
Holy Cross has been an FCS world-beater the last couple of years. However, though the team currently sits in first place in the Patriot League, they haven’t had quite the kind of juggernaut season we expected when the season started. They lost a close game on the road to Boston College back when BC was still self-destructive. This wasn’t unexpected. However, they also dropped home games to both Harvard and Patriot League foe Lafayette, and both of those were quite unexpected results.
Holy Cross typically uses a run-heavy read-option attack predicated on the running abilities of QB Matthew Sluka and RB Jordan Fuller. Once they get the running game going, the Crusaders will then take deep shots to WR Jalen Coker while mixing in just enough short-passing to keep defenses honest.
Unfortunately, Sluka has been hurt for the last couple of weeks, leaving the team to junior backup QB Joe Pesansky. Pesansky has been an effective passer, going 32/55 passing for 499 yards (58.2%) and 5 touchdowns against just 2 picks and 4 sacks in the last two games. However, he’s not a rushing threat — at all — and that has changed the basic nature of the Crusaders’ offense. Holy Cross hasn’t suffered overmuch in that Fuller has averaged 4.8 and 7.6 yards/carry, respectively, over the last two weeks, but it’s worth noting that his workload has gone WAY up. Fuller went from averaging 15-20 carries/week to averaging 25-30 carries/week.
Holy Cross has been winning games, but they’ve also been riding their lead horse pretty hard. At the same time, Pesansky threw more in the Crusaders’ game against Fordham than Sluka had thrown in any single game all season long.
This is where quarterback statistics, i.e. the difference in expected results between Sluka and Pesansky, matter a lot. Sluka is a 62% passer, while Pesansky has completed just 58% of his passes. If Army can force Pesansky to throw at least 30 times/game, the sheer loss of accuracy from QB1 to QB2 will almost certainly result in at least one additional punt over the course of the contest. Oh by the way, Pesansky has also thrown 17% more interceptions, granted in a relatively small sample size. Still, one extra pick plus one extra punt per game might easily prove the margin in an otherwise tight contest.
With two touchdowns on Saturday, @jordanfuller27 set a new single-season program record for rushing touchdowns, now with 18 on the year!— Holy Cross Football (@HCrossFB) November 7, 2023
He's the current FCS leader in rushing TDs.#GoCrossGo pic.twitter.com/oOHRhq5uzS
Holy Cross had an excellent rushing defense in 2022. They’ve been much less good in 2023. In fact, the Crusaders have allowed a whopping 5.5 yards/carry over the last three weeks. That is awful! Lafayette ran for 236 yards on the Crusaders on 5.5 yards/carry. Fordham dropped 209 yards rushing on 6.5 yards/carry. Lehigh posted 177 yards rushing on 5.1 yards/carry.
The goal for Army this week ought to be something like 7.0 yards/carry.
Holy Cross has generated 5 interceptions and 5 forced fumbles this season, but they’ve only recovered 1 of the fumbles they forced. If Army can just pound the rock relentlessly while hanging onto the football, they ought to have an excellent chance to take control of this game fairly early.
With that said, Holy Cross does have one truly outstanding linebacker, and it’s Jacob Dobbs. Dobbs has 110 tackles, 59 solo, plus 4 sacks and 2 forced fumbles. By himself, Dobbs has exactly as many total tackles as the next two guys on the team combined, and he has more total solo tackles, too. A lot of times, option offenses are really good at dealing with single, unstoppable tackling monsters, but Dobbs is still gonna make his share of plays this Saturday.
K Luis Palenzuela has gone 49/49 on extra points this season and 2/2 on field goals, both from just 20+ yards out. Which is interesting in that Holy Cross has attempted two field goals this season!
Meanwhile, P Patrick Haughney averages between 45 and 50 yards/kick. Lehigh managed to put up 2 punt returns totaling 56 yards against Haughney and the Holy Cross punt coverage team, but that hasn’t necessarily been a trend this season. Still, we might see Army attempt to set something up in the punt return game this weekend if they see something on film.
Bryson Daily ran for a career-high 170 yards and scored two touchdowns in our 23-3 victory on Saturday in Denver!— Army Football (@ArmyWP_Football) November 7, 2023
The QB landed on the @CampbellAward Honorable Mention list for Week 10. #GoArmy pic.twitter.com/WgGzFg3oPn
Army did a good job stopping the run this week against Air Force, and if they can do that again against Holy Cross RB Jordan Fuller, they ought to have an excellent chance to win this game. However, if Fuller gets going — as a few running backs have at times this year against Army — then this could turn into a nailbiter of a contest.
The good news is that we’re expecting truly terrific weather this Saturday. We should see mostly sunny skies with highs around 53 degrees. CBS Sports has television coverage, starting at noon pm.
Assuming Army can play good defense against the run and avoid turning the ball over, we should be in for an enjoyable day of Army Football.
Go Army! Beat Holy Cross!!!
Cover image via West Point Flickr.