Midseason Musings: Army's Unfinished Symphony

No, the Army Black Knights were not going to figure everything out this season or watch everything magically fall together under a new coaching staff. There are reasons to be encouraged, but if there's one item that demands attention for the second half of the season, it's Army's tendency to lose steam on offense in the final 20 minutes of games, especially the fourth quarter.


Army head coach Jeff Monken is balancing the present tense with the future tense these days. More specifically, he’s trying to develop this year’s team but teach the underclassmen the kinds of lessons that can take root in 2015 and 2016, establishing the foundation for a brighter day at West Point.

The given challenge of the next game, the next practice, the next play is daunting enough for any coach. Getting players to focus on the here and now is the essential, central task of a head coach. Yet, when a leader steps into a new situation and he realizes in the middle of his first season just how much he has to fix, the present must be balanced with the future. Therein lies Army’s true challenge for the second half of this season, since the team has now played six of its 12 games for the year.

In the short term, the Black Knights know that they can play games with only one basic form or flow: This team has to be able to grab a lead or at least remain no more than one possession behind the opposition heading into the fourth quarter. Army is not built to come back, its passing game not yet to the point where it can stand on its own if the Black Knights have to erase a 10- or 14-point lead in the final 15 minutes of a game. For now, Army has to focus on winning or tying the first two and a half quarters so that it doesn’t have to worry about a big deficit entering the home stretch. Transforming the passing game is a task for the future more than the present. Incremental gains could occur over the next month and a half, but a profound leap forward is something that will probably have to wait another season. Army shouldn’t change the way it plays over these next six games; it just has to play better.

Yet, for the future, this team will have to restructure its offense – no, not in terms of moving away from the triple-option, but in terms of formulating pass plays that get results and a running game that doesn’t run out of gas. Looking at this team’s numbers in the final 20 minutes of games offers rather stark evidence of how poorly this offense performs in late-game situations.

Let’s give Army’s offense a mulligan against an excellent Stanford defense. The problems with West Point’s late-game offense began in earnest against Wake Forest. The Black Knights scored 21 points in the game’s first 28 minutes and didn’t score after that. Against Yale, Army scored 36 points by the 8:30 mark of the third quarter and scored only seven afterward, including an overtime inning. Against Rice this past Saturday, Army scored 21 points by the 8:30 mark of the third and didn’t score again. Only in the season-opening win over Buffalo (which recently fired its coach, Jeff Quinn) did Army score at least 10 fourth-quarter points. The Black Knights have scored more than once in the final 20 minutes of only two games. It’s not mere coincidence that Army won those two games: Buffalo and Ball State.

In the short run, Army has to develop more stamina, resilience, and perhaps some run-based wrinkles. In the long run, Army will need to be able to throw the ball better if it finds itself trailing by seven points midway through the fourth quarter, or by 10 at the start of the quarter. Keep an eye on these tension points as Army’s 2014 season unfolds.

Keep even more of an eye on them when Army’s 2015 offseason takes shape.

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