Army Football 2013 In Review: Buried Yards

There are many ways to win football games. Winning third downs. Getting three-and-outs on defense inside an opponent's 10 or 20. Finding big plays. Eliminating turnovers. The list is a long one. Among the various avenues a team can find, though, the larger umbrella item of "hidden yards" looms large. Army came up short in this area in 2013. An overview will help unpack this point.


BRINGING HIDDEN YARDS INTO THE OPEN

In basketball, coaches will make it a point to their big men to keep blocked shots in bounds, as Bill Russell showed during his playing career. Basketball coaches also emphasize cutting down on the kinds of turnovers that feed an opponent's fast break. It's one thing to commit a turnover that leads to a dead ball. It's another thing to commit a live-action turnover which immediately leads to points heading to the other end of the court.

These basketball concepts very neatly carry over to football. On the gridiron, it is similarly important to avoid the kinds of turnovers that an opponent can return for a big gain in the opposite direction. Turnovers that don't bring about long returns are much easier to accept. Think of an interception on a 50-yard bomb on third and 12. That's a turnover a coaching staff can live with. A turnover on a 12-yard out pass is the kind of turnover that becomes a pick-six. Teams that get return yards attached to their takeaways – while not surrendering return yards on their giveaways – are able to win the battle for hidden yards, those portions of real estate not immediately seen in a box score or on a television broadcast.

The kicking game is another element of football in which hidden yards become important. Touchbacks and fair catches take hidden yards out of the equation for kicking teams, but when kicks are returned, especially punts, split-second decisions can create a difference of perhaps 20 yards (and frequently something in the area of 10). Accumulations of yards – lost or gained – might not change games, but when viewed over the course of a full season, they matter.

In 2013, when it came to returning both turnovers and kicks, Army simply didn't find many hidden yards. Those yards remained buried. The site cfbstats.com shows that in 2013, the Black Knights averaged 15.28 yards per kickoff return, 3.36 yards per punt return, and 0 return yards following the defense's seven interceptions. The 3.36-yard figure on punt returns is particularly notable, because punts don't have to be returned and are often (though not always) shied away from by returners because of a fear of bobbling a punt on a bounce. Army has to find ways to dramatically increase its return yardage across the board. You might not see a team transformation if that happens, but you might see two games acquire scoreboard outcomes that might not have emerged otherwise. That last sentence has been a familiar theme of these 2013 reviews, but it's worth repeating, because programs don't change overnight. They make incremental progress and gradually turn one year's failures into the next three years of success.

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