Danny Wild-USA TODAY Sports

Jay Bateman tries to make Army's defense more durable

The run of play -- a term most commonly applied to soccer matches -- very much applies to the challenge facing Army's third-year defensive coordinator in 2016. Jay Bateman has shown that he can get his players to play at a higher level. His task is more specific as the Black Knights enter the summer.

The run of play generally refers to an individual game, but for Army and Jay Bateman, the most frustrating aspect of the 2015 season was that the run of play encompassed more than just one afternoon on the gridiron.

Here's the explanation:

In many ways, what limited Army's 2015 campaign was the simple reality of week-to-week competition. More precisely, any of the gains the Black Knights' defense made in a given week usually failed to remain in place the following week. The run of play from one Saturday to the next was normally unfriendly to West Point, and this is why the season fell short of its hopes. 

The one aberrational occurrence for the 2015 Army defense, relative to the pattern described above, came in week two. Army had just surrendered 37 points at home to Fordham, an FCS school, in week one. The Black Knights were disorganized coming out of the chute, but when they gained a second chance to test themselves, they passed with flying colors, allowing only 22 points to FBS member Connecticut in a week-two road game. 

In this two-week sequence, Army underwent the following progression: layoff; bad performance; good follow-up performance.

Such a sequence did not replicate itself for the remainder of the 2015 season.

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Army encountered two more layoffs in the course of its 2015 campaign. The first one occurred on October 31, an open date before the first of two Commander-In-Chief's Trophy games against Air Force. If the long offseason layoff led to a rusty and inadequate display against Fordham, this in-season layoff gave the Black Knights a needed opportunity to regroup. They held Air Force to only 20 points on the road in Colorado Springs, a superb effort which -- in other seasons -- would have led to a victory. On that day, however, the offense couldn't get untracked, and the Black Knights absorbed a 20-3 loss. Nevertheless, Bateman had used an extended period of downtime to his advantage, unlike the Fordham opener. 

The second layoff was, of course, the three-week (two-weekend) break between the penultimate game of the season and Game 12, also known as the Army-Navy Game. Instead of having its rhythm disrupted, Army actually flourished against Keenan Reynolds and the rest of a Navy offense which had generally dominated its opposition in the final month of the season. Navy ran all over Memphis and Tulsa, and it scored over 30 points in Houston against the Peach Bowl (New Year's Six)-winning Cougars. Navy's offense throttled Pittsburgh in the Military Bowl. Reynolds made a Heisman Trophy-level statement week after week in November and much of December, even though he wasn't invited to the Heisman ceremony in New York.

However, for all of the good things Reynolds did in the latter part of Navy's season, he couldn't subdue Army's defense. Bateman coaxed a marvelous performance from his charges, getting them to be physical and punishing while maintaining gap integrity and not losing focus on many downfield pass plays. Army was stretched and probed and challenged by an historically great college quarterback... and it held firm.

If Army suffered after its offseason layoff in week one, the Black Knights' defense did not struggle after two subsequent in-season breaks.

Here's the problem: Whereas Navy was a season finale -- no game followed it -- the in-season break which was followed by the Air Force game didn't lead to sustained performance within the full season's run of play. Army allowed 34 points to a Tulane offense which struggled most of the year, and had just come off its worst performance of the season, a three-point showing in a home-field loss to Connecticut. 

You can see the inversion at work here: In weeks one and two, Army went from post-layoff rust to an improved performance as it settled into the season. However, the latter half of the season witnessed the opposite: Army played well in its first game after a layoff, but settling into a season's run of play eroded performance instead of enhancing it.

This is a central task for Jay Bateman in 2016: He must make a season's full run of play his friend, not his enemy... at all times, not just early September.


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