Your Army Black Knights got a hard-fought victory at home this week in a game in which they didn’t necessarily have their best stuff — at least not consistently for all four quarters, at any rate. Thankfully, Army’s offense, defense, and special teams all played very well both early and late when it counted. In the middle, they maybe missed a few chances to put the Crusaders away early. What can you do?
Having watched Army lose by a single play several times this season, it was at least somewhat gratifying to see them win a close contest by a single play this time. Holy Cross QB Matthew Sluka ran a beautifully executed jump pass on 4th-and-goal from the Army 2-yard-line, but DB Jabari Moore broke it up in the end zone, turning the Crusaders away without points and preserving a then 14-point lead with 4:25 left in the third quarter.
As it turned out, those points really mattered.
Veterans Day VICTORY 🙌 pic.twitter.com/hYps3hgFo1— Army Football (@ArmyWP_Football) November 11, 2023
Army’s offense ran the ball effectively in the first half this week, especially via the option. They got the ball to their running backs in space several times, setting up RB Tyrell Robinson to carry 6 times for 45 yards (7.5 yards/carry) and a touchdown and RB Markel Johnson to carry twice for 21 yards (10.5 yards/carry). That was great. However, Holy Cross made an adjustment on defense at the half, and Army could not successfully counter-adjust.
A lot of that came down to penalties. Army punted 3 times in this game. Two of those punts came about immediately after Holding calls put Army’s offense ten yards behind the chains. The offense then invariably put up big runs on the very next play that would have netted a first down absent those penalties. By then it was too late.
The Black Knights’ passing offense still isn’t quite where it needs to be to make this scheme work as designed. QB Bryson Daily finished 4/6 passing (66.7%) for 79 yards, and that’s honestly great. However, the team missed yet another game-breaking throw to the tight end over the middle this week, too. That play probably wasn’t going for a touchdown, but it was wide open, and it might’ve set up a decisive score that would have ended all hope of a Holy Cross comeback.
We’ve seen time and again this season that Army needs these passing plays down the stretch in these games. Opponents know that the Black Knights are throwing a little more this season, so they don’t necessarily want to bring their safeties down and play their whole defense in the box. However, once Army gets that new-look option offense working, those same opponents really don’t have much choice. We saw this with UTSA, Syracuse, Boston College, and again this week with Holy Cross. Once those safeties come down, it’s much tougher sledding in the running game, but quick passes become available everywhere.
Army made that work consistently at UTSA, and they made it work well enough against Boston College. They’ve left some plays on the field in many other games this season. This week, they did okay, but again, they left an opportunity on the field, too, and it was absolutely there.
Maretzki is good from 26 yards and Army leads 17-7. pic.twitter.com/jIVHIo7q68— Army Football (@ArmyWP_Football) November 11, 2023
The biggest thing that surprised me in this week’s game was how much bigger Holy Cross’s team was than Army’s. This was true on both sides of the ball, but it was especially apparent on defense.
It’s becoming a problem.
Holy Cross markets itself primarily to would-be Ivy League players for whom an actual full-ride scholarship is important. “Come play for Holy Cross, and we’ll give you that scholarship that Harvard won’t. Plus we can play for the FCS Championship, while the ivies can’t.”
This is a winning strategy. It saw Holy Cross deep into the FCS playoffs last year, and it’s liable to take them back again this year. My buddy’s kid almost declined Harvard and Yale to go to Holy Cross because of that scholarship. This is a kid with multiple Power 5 offers. I honestly thought he was nuts, but some kids really value education, and money talks.
Hammonds reads and reacts for the INT 👏 pic.twitter.com/KBWDBgaoGI— Army Football (@ArmyWP_Football) November 11, 2023
We saw it on the field this week. Holy Cross has a good team with a lot of good players. Indeed, if they moved to the American right now, they’d probably be at least a middle-of-the-pack team. They’re a Top 25 FCS team as of this writing, and other comparable teams — JMU especially, but also Jacksonville State to a lesser extent — have done very well immediately after moving up.
They certainly greatly out-massed Army at the point of attack when they were on offense. The Black Knights still forced 2 turnovers and blocked a punt. Those were great plays, and they ultimately made the difference in this contest. However, as the game wore on, the physical challenge of playing against that heavy running style with all those bigger bodies became a serious issue. As we’ve seen all season, Army has real trouble getting off the field against running quarterbacks.
Holy Cross didn’t mount much in the way of effective offense until late in the third quarter. Even then, they finished with 26 first downs, almost 400 yards of total offense, and a whopping 239 yards rushing on fully 5.0 yards/carry.
Friends, that’s gonna make it tough every single week.
Like I said, a win is a win. The Black Knights managed just 269 yards of total offense, converted just 5/12 third downs and 2/3 fourth downs, and only finished one drive for a touchdown on offense. That’s not the world’s greatest example of complementary football. However, they didn’t turn the ball over, and they did force two turnovers, plus they also blocked a punt for a touchdown.
As with last year’s Army-Navy Game, all three phases matter.
When you’re struggling, everything gets harder. Army has been struggling. Now, however, they’ve put together two wins in a row, both over quality opponents.
We wanted to see steady, incremental improvement on both sides of the ball. Well, this is what that looks like. This week’s game was again decided by a single play. For the first time all season, Army made that play. That’s improvement.
It gets harder from here.
Army has the Coastal Carolina Chanticleers coming to town on a five-game winning streak. We probably won’t see QB Grayson McCall, but that might not matter. The Chants have won three-in-a-row without McCall, and indeed, they’ve now won two-in-a-row behind freshman QB Ethan Vasko. Worse, with McCall out, the Chants have rediscovered their power running roots. That could be a real problem for a defense that’s given up at least 5 yards/carry to pretty much everyone all season.
But Army now has some momentum. Have they truly turned things around? We’ll find out this weekend. A win over Coastal ought to put an end to the doubting.
Go Army! Beat Coastal Carolina!!
Cover image via @ArmyWP_Football.