The 120th edition of the Army-Navy game is upon us and the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy is up for grabs. Army can’t win the trophy outright, but an upset over the 23rd ranked Midshipmen would retain it for the 3rd straight year. Navy seeks to claim the CIC Trophy for the first time since 2015.
Ever since Jeff Monken took over as the head coach of Army, the game has been decided by seven points or less and the most points either team has scored is 21. Expect another tight, low scoring affair as both offenses employ a methodical, ball control flexbone attack. We’re going to look closer at what to watch for offensively and defensively for both teams.
When Navy Has the Ball
For the Navy offense the game plan is simple: Malcolm Perry. He’s averaging over 20 carries per game and more than doubles any teammate in carries and rushing yards. He also leads the team in rushing touchdowns with 19. For the 3rd straight year, Perry has topped 1,000 yards and will be the most experienced and explosive play maker in the game this year. The Navy coaches know how impactful he can be against Army. In 2017, Perry carried the ball 30 times for 250 yards and a touchdown.
Navy is also throwing the football with more success than in previous years. The offense is averaging 103 pass yards per game opposed to 73 in 2018. Typically for a triple option offense, passing game success is predicated on the run game. Navy has had a better rushing attack in 2019 and forced teams to respect more aspects of their run game, opening up opportunities for chunk plays throwing downfield. A lot of credit for the improvements can be assigned to the offensive line. Overall, Perry is the most dynamic quarterback Navy has had since Keenan Reynolds. If he can have the kind of game he had in 2017, Navy will be in a prime position to take back the CIC Trophy.
The loss of last year’s defensive coordinator Jay Bateman and several key defensive players has been tough for the Army defense. The statistic that jumps off the page is 3rd down defense. Army ranks 104th in the country, allowing opponents to convert on 44% of their attempts. In a game where ball control will be critical, getting off the field quickly can be a huge momentum shift and flipping the script on this year’s trend is vitally important for Army. While Army does have a new defensive coordinator, John Loose, he has been with the staff during Monken’s entire tenure at West Point and will likely not change much in how the defense prepares for Navy considering the success of the last few years.
Against Navy in 2018 and against Air Force this season, Army has run a five-man front with two inside linebackers playing over the guards. This is a common look for stopping the flexbone, however, the Black Knights have used a very unconventional twist: They line up the defensive line a full yard off the line of scrimmage. You can see the front here at the 0:50 mark.
This is certainly an unusual tactic against a run heavy team. Most coaches will tell you that winning the line of scrimmage is critical to great defensive football. As with any defense, there are pros and cons. In flexbone, the backside of the offensive line regularly is trying to cut block the defenders. By playing off the ball, the Army defensive line is often able to avoid this, and come free into the backfield. It also allows them to have all 11 players react to the direction of the play and get to the ball carrier. The downside is they are essentially allowing the opposing team free yards on every play if they want to run right up the middle. Also, a good offensive line can get momentum and create larger rush lanes if the defense makes a mistake. Considering Army allowed 10 points last year to Navy and 17 to Air Force, expect them to utilize this look again to stop the Navy attack.
When Army Has the Ball
It has been an up and down year for the Army offense as they have contended with injuries across the board, particularly at quarterback. The biggest question mark coming into this game is the health of Kelvin Hopkins Jr. Hopkins was expected to return and lead the Black Knights to another big season, but injuries have kept him from being effective. He has looked much better in recent weeks and hopefully for Army the bye week helped him heal up for the most important game of the season. Unlike the Mids, Army doesn’t have one player that has dazzled through 2019. Instead, they spread carries out across the board and have relied heavily on their fullbacks to carry the load with all the uncertainty at quarterback.
The offensive line, a strength last year, hasn’t been nearly as stable in 2019. The coaching staff has made several changes throughout the year, and the group has also dealt with it’s share of injuries. While Army has run the ball inside the tackles with the fullback a lot this season, it hasn’t been nearly as effective as they would like. The biggest X-factor for Army on Saturday is Kell Walker. The senior slotback leads the team in yards per carry for starters at 7.3. He’s Army’s biggest threat to bust a game open with a big play and left his mark on the 2018 game. At the 0:20 mark in the above video, Walker breaks off a huge run to set up the first Army touchdown. He will need a few clutch runs in order for Army to take the victory.
The overhaul of the Navy defense by new coordinator Brian Newberry has been nothing short of remarkable. One of the worst groups in the country last season, Coach Newberry has breathed life into his unit and was named a semifinalist for the Broyles Award, given to the top assistant in college football. All season, the Mids have used a variety of schemes to confuse opposing offenses. It will be interesting to see how Newberry defends Army in his first game against the Black Knights. This could be an advantage for Navy as the Army coaches haven’t seen what he wants to do before. We can look at the Navy-Air Force game to get an idea of what the Mids might show this weekend.
In the Air Force game, Navy also used a 5-2 defense, but lined up on the ball in a traditional look. The Mids frustrated Air Force all game with a variety of linebacker and safety blitzes. This video shows the front and a lot of the different looks Navy used to win against the Falcons.
Navy has had a lot of success this season throwing multiple looks at opposing teams. Expect nothing different against Army. Considering the struggles by the Army offensive line and the instability at quarterback, Navy will likely use blitz packages early and often to try to gain an edge.
Keys to Victory
Win on First Down
As mentioned earlier. Army has struggled to stop opposing offenses on 3rd down. Conversely, Navy has been one of the best 3rd down defenses in the country. Getting good yardage offensively and holding Navy to small gains defensively on first down is critical for the Black Knights.
Get to the Edge
We saw earlier how Navy halted Air Force with interior blitzes. The Mids have strength up the middle and the Army offensive line hasn’t inspired a ton of confidence this season to wear down opposing fronts. However, the Black Knights have speed at the skill positions and will need some big plays in order to win the game. Getting the ball quickly to Kell Walker and Artice Hobbs IV could help swing the game.
Win the Turnover Battle
Last year, Army was +4 in turnovers against their rivals. Turning the football over kills a flexbone offense more than any other. Sitting at 9-2, Navy looks like the better team. Winning the turnover battle is vital if Army wants to pull off the upset.
Get Perry Going
Malcolm Perry has played at an MVP level all season and has come up clutch for Navy when they needed him most. If they can get their star player off and running against the Black Knights, they will set themselves up to take back the CIC Trophy
Move the Line of Scrimmage
An improved offensive line has been a major factor in Navy’s return to relevance. Army will likely come out in their modified 5-2 defense that held the Mids to 10 points a year ago. The offensive line needs to use flip that to their advantage and drive Army off the ball.
Attack the Quarterback
Donald Hammond III had a remarkable year for Air Force and Navy’s defense kept him in check for three quarters by getting after him on both pass and run plays. Whether Kelvin Hopkins Jr. plays or not, the quarterback position has been anything but consistent for Army. Putting stress on that position will be key for the Navy defense.