Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

The Army Black Knights continue their fight against limitations

The Rice Owls aren't even halfway through their Conference USA regular season, so it's perfectly natural to say that they're not yet sure of what they are as a football team. Their opponent this upcoming Saturday in Houston isn't very sure, either. Army and Rice will both try to learn a lot about themselves -- in the right ways and for the right reasons -- when they meet on the gridiron.

Do you think you have a pretty good idea of what Army football is -- and isn't -- in 2015? Perhaps to some extent. Injuries appear to be limiting this team's ceiling. Stylistically, the Black Knights aren't going to become a team which throws for over 250 yards a game or makes 17-point fourth-quarter comebacks. The defense has become capable, to the point that a majority of its games produce strong performances good enough to win, but every now and then, a hot opponent or a bad matchup causes the dam to burst. You could make a number of statements which point to a defined pigskin personality for Jeff Monken's team. 

Simply realize that for any relatively safe statement you can make about this year's group, there's at least one statement you can make which points to an unsettled, unresolved component of the Black Knights. This past Saturday's game against Bucknell, in many ways, raised more questions than it answered. We move into the second half of the season, and Army feels more like an unknown team than a squad from which we can expect more or less the same thing every week.

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Let's start with the basics. A few weeks ago, Army found itself in a slugfest with Penn State on the road. The Black Knights stood in the trenches and did not back down against a Big Ten program with a long and storied history predating its arrival in the conference. The 20-14 loss was frustrating at the very end -- a fourth-down play ended in a dispiriting way -- but on balance, the effort was substantial, and the aftermath was as encouraging as any aftermath of any game in the still-young tenure of Monken at West Point.

Now, here we are, two and a half weeks later, and Army is coming off a 21-14 win at home against an FCS team in the same kind of slugfest. Sure, A.J. Schurr had to come off the bench and fight his own physical limitations to lead his team to victory - that was and is undeniably impressive. Yet, a quarterback - as important as he might be to a football team's fortunes - remains a single player out of 11 on one unit, and out of 22 in terms of the two units which get over 90 percent of a game's scrimmage plays. That Army's other 10 offensive players and other 21 overall players could not distance themselves from Bucknell -- a month and a half after losing to another FCS team, Fordham, at Michie Stadium -- makes it hard to know what we have in front of us with these Black Knights. 

When a game at Penn State and a home game against Bucknell both acquire the same general texture -- with a fantastic Edgar Poe catch being the one thing which separated the loss in the former game from the win in the latter -- one is left to wonder why there's such a pronounced lack of variance between performances, with the aberrationally bad result against Duke standing in the middle of them.

Penn State and Bucknell are most assuredly not in the same weight class. Put the Nittany Lions and the Bison on the field and see what happens. Penn State would likely romp in that game. Army can cite injuries to a certain extent, but that doesn't entirely explain what happened against PSU and Bucknell. This is a team still very much in search of itself.

Its opponent on Saturday in Houston is also in that same basic condition.

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Rice has lost to a great team, a good Group of Five team, and a team that has bigger, stronger players. Those teams, in order, are Baylor, Western Kentucky, and Texas. There's no real shame in falling to any of those schools for a program of Rice's level, with its share of resources. In this sense, the Owls haven't yet picked up a damaging loss. However, they had to eke out a one-point win over a not-very-good Florida Atlantic team in their most recent game, so it's hard to say whether Rice is a good team which has lost to quality opposition, or a not-so-good team that's waiting to be exposed.

The statistics muddle the picture of the Owls instead of lending clarity to it. Rice is nearly a 10-point favorite right now, but the stats would tell you the Owls are uniquely and profoundly vulnerable in the face of what Army can do.

The stat Jeff Monken has to be hammering home to his team in practice this week is that Rice allows just over five yards per carry. That is a big, fat target for Army on Saturday. If the Black Knights can average five yards a carry, they will have an excellent (not merely good) chance of winning the game. Five yards per carry doesn't just point to consistent production and sustained drives; it also means that Army will set up a lot of third and shorts and fourth and shorts. The Black Knights won't face many second and nines or second and eights. They can create the kind of game they want. 

The main thing to guard against: as always, turnovers. Army has fumbled 17 times in the past three games - not losing all of them, but leaving matters up to chance is exactly how a better-than-you-think win opportunity can slip away against Rice. Given the bumps and bruises absorbed by A.J. Schurr and Ahmad Bradshaw, this isn't a game in which Army can count on the pass or on quarterback keepers, so the need to establish five yards per carry must come from the offensive line, in support of the fullback and halfback. The concept and plan don't need to be complicated.

Army's players don't need to complicate the situation with fundamental breakdowns.

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Army and Rice are mysteries. We don't yet know which identity will define these teams at season's end. Too much remains up in the air.

If Army doesn't put the ball on the ground, victory could be in the air for the Black Knights in Houston.


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