The troops took care of business over the weekend as the Black Knights, Midshipmen and Falcons each captured wins in their season openers.
Navy blew out Holy Cross, Air Force convincingly trounced Colgate, and Army – somewhat surprisingly – squeaked out a win against Rice.
There’s something we can learn from each of these games about the Service Academies’ football teams going forward this season.
Is Army going to be as good as we thought?
Most folks were penciling in Army to reach double-digit wins again this season and to capture the Commander-In-Chief’s trophy for the third straight time. Some were expecting them to give Michigan a battle too, the way the Black Knights nearly beat Oklahoma last year.
And a win is a win, but those expectations might need to be tempered down some after the Black Knights needed fourth quarter heroics to beat Rice, 14-7.
For context, let’s remember a few things about Rice. Last year, they were the 124th best offensive team in the country and the 112th best defensive team (there’s only 130 teams in FBS, by the way). The Owls limped to a 2-11 record, their only wins coming against FCS Prairie View A&M and Old Dominion. Houston — the team Army hung 70 points on in bowl season — beat Rice 45-27. Now, that was just year one on the job for head coach Mike Bloomgren and he could’ve flipped things around in a hurry with a full off-season under his belt. That remains to be seen.
But Army was favored by 23 points in this game. A contest between the Owls and the Black Knights should not have been this close. What happened?
For one thing, Army’s rushing attack was bottled up. The Black Knights mustered just 231 yards on the ground on 56 carries for a respectable 4.1 yards per-carry average. For most football teams, that’s a good mark. But Army can’t be just respectable in the rushing game to win. It has to be great. Last season, Army failed to eclipse 231 yards just twice, against Navy (a tight win) and against Duke (a 20-point loss).
With Connor Slomka out — who Jeff Monken said should be ready for Michigan next week — Sandon McCoy carried the load, rushing for 70 yards on 20 carries. But he also fumbled once, and Army can’t afford to make mistakes like that when it faces its fellow Service Academy teams and tough G5 squads like Tulane and Western Kentucky, let alone Michigan.
Army’s defense was pretty solid in this game though, notching three tackles for losses, knocking away three passes and forcing a fumble. They also frustrated Rice quarterback Wiley Green, holding him to 62 yards passing on 14 attempts. The only player who gave Army fits was running back Nahshon Ellerbe, who scampered for 103 yards and a score on nine attempts, a 11.3 yards per-carry average.
The Black Knights were not-so-great in their season-opener last year too, putting up an uninspiring performance at Duke. And then Army went on to lose just once more for the rest of the season. So maybe season-openers aren’t Army’s thing? Maybe they should move one of their FCS games to week one?
In any case, Army won, but they have to be much better this week if they want a chance at beating Michigan.
Malcolm Perry shows improvement as a passer
Every off-season, from nearly every team, we hear the stories and the clichés about how so-and-so player has worked extremely hard to get better at whatever position he’s playing, and how the coach saw him working out alone on his own time, and how that player is going to lead the team to a better season than they had the year before.
With Navy and Malcolm Perry, that’s no fairy tale.
After playing musical chairs with the quarterback position last season — in which the Mids limped to a 3-10 season — Ken Niumatalolo re-committed to Perry being the starting quarterback this year, full-time. And at Navy’s media day, Perry talked about improving as a passer, and Niumatalolo praised Perry for his work ethic.
And then on Saturday against Holy Cross, we saw something we’ve never seen before from Malcolm Perry: he passed for more yards than he rushed.
Perry threw for a career-high 103 yards, completing 6-of-9 attempts through the air. On the ground, he scampered for 28 yards and a score on 10 carries.
While Perry did this against a not-so-great FCS side, this was still a real game, and Perry showed poise under center and patience in his decision-making with the ball. He showed — for real, clichés be damned — that he has improved as a passer.
This could be a product of a combination of things, from Perry working his tail off in the off-season and in camp, to new Navy assistant Billy Ray Stutzman installing elements of the run-and-shoot in the Navy offense, to Perry feeling the confidence of Niumatalolo to the point where he can play freely and not have to worry about getting benched or moved to slotback should he make a mistake in the air.
Navy was still at its best when it ran the football, charging ahead for 428 yards, but the Navy offense is running on all cylinders when defenses are unsure of what’s coming. That’s what Navy was missing last season when opposing defenses disregarded any passing threat the Mids might’ve had. Defenses dared Navy to pass, and they just couldn’t. The Midshipmen were the worst passing team in the country last season, completing 4.2 passes per-game for an FBS-low 72.8 yards. Navy’s offense became predictable and defenses were unafraid. But when there’s even a small threat of defenses being burned by a Navy pass, it opens things up for the Mids’ rushing attack. It might not be a coincidence that Perry had his best passing day and fullback Nelson Smith had 15 carries for 96 yards and three touchdowns.
If Perry is able to be a consistent passing threat all season long, Navy could be on track for a big bounce-back season.
Air Force might have a pretty good defense
Donald Hammond III and Kadin Remsberg accounted for a handful of highlight plays in Air Force’s dominant 48-7 win over Colgate, but the Falcons’ defense was pretty exceptional too.
Air Force held Colgate to 75 yards rushing and 86 yards passing. FCS or not, that’s impressive.
And Colgate is no slouch, despite it’s 0-2 record. A year ago, Army only beat the Raiders by two scores. That was one of just two games Colgate would lose all year as they went 10-2 and beat James Madison in the FCS playoffs. Additionally, Colgate is armed with the preseason defensive and offensive players of the year for the Patriot League. The latter of which is quarterback Grant Breneman, who was invited to the Manning Passing Academy this off-season. All Air Force did was make him look especially ordinary, holding him to 81 yards on 9-of-16 attempts. Breneman did find the end-zone once, but also threw an interception.
Air Force also forced a pair of fumbles and got into Colgate’s backfield to cause chaos often. The Falcons notched six tackles for losses, four QB hurries and two sacks. They also batted down four passes.
This season, the Falcons brought back seven starters on defense and four of their five top tacklers. In his preseason preview magazine, Phil Steele placed five Falcons defenders on his All-Mountain West teams. Steele was especially high on Air Force, projecting them to be one of the 12 best G5 teams in the country this year.
A year ago, Air Force had four losses by six points or less (and three more losses by less than 10 points), and a defensive unit that was middle-of-the-pack, giving up 25.8 points per-game last season, which ranked 56th in FBS. If the defense continues to be stellar, the Falcons might be able to flip those close defeats into wins this year.