Army's Offense stuck in Neutral

The Army Black Knights played what was technically a neutral site game on Saturday against the Akron Zips. Instead of playing the Mid-American Conference team on their turf, Army traveled to Cleveland Browns Stadium for the 2007 season opener.

Unfortunately for first-year Army coach Stan Brock, the neutral-site game revealed an offense still stuck in neutral. The home of the Cleveland Browns witnessed another brown-out for an offense that simply didn't contribute much to the cause.

And so, one is confronted with an unpleasant yet undeniable reality: a new season is bringing familiar headaches the previous coaching staff couldn't cure. The fact that Akron was Saturday night's opponent helps put things in a larger perspective.

Two seasons ago, Army traveled to the Akron campus with Bobby Ross as head coach. On that night, Army's opponent was accurately named the Zips: the Black Knights scored a shutout victory, their first of the 2005 season against six losses. There once was a time when Akron was a get-well tonic for the Brave Old Army Team. But in 2007 in Cleveland, Akron Zipped by the Black Knights and kept a struggling team down.

The regression against Akron is bad enough for the Army football program, but what has to be even more discouraging is that a familiar and nagging pattern continued for the boys from West Point: they lost a game in which they were statistically competitive. Akron had just one more first down than Army, a reasonable but still modest advantage of 75 rushing yards, and a slight edge in terms of completion percentage (58 to 52). Army had advantages in terms of third-down conversion percentage (39 to 17 percent), completed passes (23 to 17), penalties (three to Akron's six), and time of possession (just over two and a half minutes).

Yet, had it not been for a late blocked punt recovery by Army's Peter Anderson for a touchdown, the final score of this game would have been 22-7. Army's offense scored seven points Saturday night, but those seven points came only after it gave Akron six points (the Zips missed the PAT) on an interception returned 74 yards for a touchdown by a cornerback named--believe it, folks--Reggie Corner. (You couldn't make that one up if you tried.)

Here's where the math becomes alarmingly simple: seven points scored minus six points given back means that Army's offense scored a net of one point. That's not a winning performance, but what's particularly frustrating is that Army's offense--which needs to be a ball-control attack that can shorten games and keep the team close--committed two turnovers and prevented the Black Knights from being as competitive as they could have been.

High-powered offenses, by their very nature, will take big risks. Many will fail, but many more will succeed. If an offense scores 42 points but gives away 14 points on turnovers, it has still netted 28 points. If big plays outnumber mistakes, the mistakes will often be worth it.

The calculus is different, though, for low-powered ball-control offenses such as the one led by Army quarterback David Pevoto.

The Black Knights' starting signal caller doesn't push the ball down the field. On Saturday against Akron, Pevoto averaged exactly eight yards per completion and just over four yards per pass attempt. With conservative numbers such as those, a passer has to protect the ball. If high-octane attacks increase the level of risk so that they can score big, the opposite is true for ball-control pass offenses: if they're not going to take many chances and throw short all game long, they need to display ball security so that the other team's offense can stay off the field, keeping Army's defense fresh.

Pevoto and Army's offense, just one game into this young season, have a choice to make: they can either take more risks and push for more points, or they can maintain a short passing game but insist on better execution and fewer turnovers. The latter approach makes a lot more sense, but if Army is going to maintain a manageable playbook, the turnovers simply have to be weeded out of the equation. Army can be competitive with a ball control offense and a conservative passing game, but the Black Knights have little chance if their short passing attack can't avoid crippling interceptions such as the ones Pevoto tossed on Saturday night in Cleveland.

Every team--and every coaching staff--must approach each game with a definite risk-reward approach to game planning and execution. Conservative plans probably fit the style and personnel of this Army ballclub right now, but a conservative plan only works if possession of the football is... well... conserved.

The Black Knights know exactly what they have to do this upcoming Saturday against Rhode Island. All that's left is for them to execute in accordance with their plan.


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