After a shaky start to the season, followed by three straight losses, no reasonable Army fan expected a repeat of last season’s beat-down of San Jose State. However, Army was back at home, and with the Spartans being weak in both rushing offensively, and defending against the rush as well, most people figured that this was the perfect opponent to get back on track against.
Unfortunately, the Black Knights have weaknesses of their own, and San Jose State’s exposure of those weaknesses hurt Army big time. This now four-game losing streak is testing many Army fans. Current cadets, and new(er) Old Grads have only tasted winning, so this season has been rather shocking. For those (myself included) who had a taste of the pre-Monken era, it looks uncomfortably familiar.
That being said, I have to keeping bringing back the eternally optimistic Army fan inside me and recognize that despite losing four straight games, Army still has three wins, and there are still five games left on the schedule. That’s a lot of football left to play, and arguably the two things most worth fighting for (beating Navy and retaining the CIC Trophy) are still on the table. Now, there have been a number of factors at play in each of Army’s losses, so it’s hard to pin down the root cause of the team’s troubles, but here’s what stood out to me from last Saturday against San Jose State. And if these issues persist, winning any of the remaining five games will be a struggle.
3rd Down Defense
This has become a recurring issue in each of the past four losses. Many times against San Jose State, the Army defense was able to force third-and-long situations for the Spartans. Unfortunately, the Black Knights allowed San Jose State to convert 5 out of 10 times on third down. A big reason Army struggled was an inability to pressure QB Josh Love. Love went 20-31 for 314 yards and 3 touchdowns. The Spartans averaged 10.1 yards per pass.
In order to be successful moving forward, the Black Knights have to get pressure on opposing quarterbacks and get off the field on third down. Letting Air Force or Hawaii or Navy pick up those third down situations and extend drives will be devastating. Army even possessed the ball for just over 39 minutes against the Spartans. Those three teams in particular will eat up way more clock than San Jose State especially if Army can’t hold the line on third down.
Army has had considerable luck the past few years of avoiding significant injuries. Even last season when Kelvin Hopkins sat out at times, there was still plenty of depth on the roster to keep the team rolling along to victory. Lady luck has caught up with the Black Knights this season and injuries are exacting a heavy toll. In the first few possessions, Army rotated in both Hopkins and Jabari Laws.
This seemed effective until Laws got knocked out from a hit under the chin caused by a blocked teammate being shoved into him. Third-string QB Christian Anderson came into the game, and had great success orchestrating Army’s ground attack. It seemed though that offensive coordinator Brent Davis trusted Anderson in a few too many passing scenarios. The Black Knights had a handful of other players, on the offensive line and on defense banged up and escorted off the field.
Christian Anderson stepped up Saturday.— Army Football (@ArmyWP_Football) October 29, 2019
Career high 87 rushing yards and 2 TDs.
Including this 33-yard scamper for a score ⤵️ pic.twitter.com/1NAbsJtS1A
It’s obvious that Hopkins is limited - which means there tends to be an over-reliance on his passing ability. Injuries throw off the rhythm of the offense, with new faces rotating in and out of the huddle on any given play. On defense, they allow opponents to probe weaknesses especially in Army’s secondary. The injuries hurt (no pun intended), but the trickle-down effects are even worse.
Penalties and turnovers - two bad words that seemed to be fading out of Army football’s vocabulary under Jeff Monken. Much to the chagrin of Army faithful, they’re back. After an alarming number of turnovers to start the season, the Black Knights have tightened things up for the most part. However, they still lost one fumble to San Jose State after a rare defensive stop, which gave the Spartans prime field position to tack on points.
The penalties were a big killer. It seemed as though every Army possession started with a false-start penalty which is difficult enough to overcome without the other troubling issues nagging at the Black Knights. Army had nine penalties for 74 yards against the Spartans. Some of the penalties could be traced back to injuries - inexperienced guys getting jumpy. But there were a number of pass interference calls that could’ve been avoided had Army’s defensive backs turned to face the ball (and they may have even picked off at least one).
The penalties and turnovers are sloppy, and in a close 34-29 game, they can be the difference between winning and losing. Not only is it disappointing from a football perspective, but it also calls into question the innate discipline of a team comprised of players who are preparing to lead soldiers into combat.
There are plenty of other issues or statistics that could be discussed, along with possible solutions. Or perhaps you’re ready to mail it in this season, and calling for coaching changes already. I don’t have the answers, and something tells me that getting back on track this season will be no easy task. But I’d encourage taking a look at things in perspective. We’re still in the thick of the 2019 season with three wins. It’d been almost 20 years since Army had the success it’s enjoyed under Monken the past three seasons.
Right now we’re in a tough stretch, but there’s still hope for this season. And even if things don’t pan out - every team has a bad season here and there. The Black Knights have won 8, 10, and 11 games the past three seasons. That’s unprecedented, and near impossible to maintain for any service academy team. Navy went 3-10 last year. It happens. Don’t lose hope yet.
Anyway, it’s Air Force week, and you can bet the Zoomies are looking for revenge, so remember - If it flies, it dies!