Army's Big Play Problem

The problem with the Army football team on Saturday was not really its defense. Nor was the problem related to the Cadets' offense. Nor was the special teams a source of frustration for the Black Knights of the Hudson. No, in terms of sustained, quarter-to-quarter performance, there really wasn't much of anything wrong with the way Army carried itself against the Air Force Academy Falcons. For about 90 to 95 percent of the total plays from scrimmage on Saturday, Army did a damn good job.

The Cadets put up 30 points, enough to win most ballgames for most teams. 

What's more, however, is the fact that Army's much-maligned and oft-criticized run defense stood tall, containing Air Force's vaunted rushing attack for most of the game.  

Air Force's triple option look often confuses the bejeezus out of opposing defenses, and when the Falcons don't beat you with confusion and out-manning you on the edges—due to slick ballhandling and clever motion action before and after the snap—the Falcons ram the ball down your throat with Chance Harridge, a quarterback who is both fleet and fierce, both fast and furious in his running style. Harridge is a quick, darting kind of QB who can then show a linebacker's mentality by lowering his shoulder into your chest and leaving you crumpled up in a heap on the turf. He was expected by many to run over, around and through Army's run defense, which was as bad as bad gets in losses to East Carolina and Houston earlier in the year. 

But on Saturday at Michie Stadium, with the Commander-in-Chief Trophy on the line, the long gray line became a long blackshirted wall against Air Force's bread-and-butter triple option. On an extremely high percentage of all scrimmage plays, the Army front seven played with the grit and guts and toughness that all good frontline soldiers must display in the heat of the fight.  

Army, for a vast majority of all plays from scrimmage, bottled up Harridge, stuck Air Force running back Leotis Palmer, snuffed out the fullback plunge—the first part of the triple option—and generally played the Falcons to a standstill. 

Army's defense was absolutely outstanding on third downs, especially in the first half, when the Cadets held Air Force to just one third down conversion in five attempts. Meanwhile, Army's offense went 6 for 12 on third downs. It was the Cadets who had more sustained offense than the Falcons, a surprising development that should have translated into a lead or, at the very least, a tied game. 

But oh, when you're struggling as a football team and have a difficult time winning games, you'll encounter, at some point in the season, the kind of game Army had on Saturday in the 49-30 loss to the Falcons from Colorado Springs. 

You see, it's been repeated at length that Army bottled up Air Force for a vast majority of all scrimmage plays, 90 to 95 percent of all plays, in fact. 

But on just a handful of plays, Army lost its discipline on defense and failed to stay home, thereby losing lane integrity and blowing assignments. 

Army's defense lost its discipline on a halfback option pass from Air Force's Palmer that opened the scoring early in the first quarter. Seven points from a lack of discipline on one big downfield play. 

Army lost its discipline when a defender missed an open-field tackle on Palmer on a 4th and 3 play that turned into a 26-yard touchdown run. Another lack of sound football on one play, and seven more points. 

An end-around burned an overpursuing Army defense for three more points—only three because, as was the case ALL DAY LONG, Army's short-yardage and red-zone defense were both sensational. 

A lack of smarts—and a mistimed jump—allowed Air Force to catch a deep ball with just seconds left in the first half, leading to three extra points for the Falcons that never should have been tallied. 

On into the second half, the crushing defensive busts continued. After the Black Knights got within one possession at 32-24, courtesy of the inspired running of Josh Holden, the defense had a busted coverage on a hulking Air Force tight end who caught a pass all alone and walked in for a 50-yard touchdown, extending the lead back to 15 at 39-24. Seven more points from not sustained drives or continued Air Force excellence, but from a plain lack of discipline from the Cadets.  

And then, outside of the defense, a dropped ball at the Air Force 2 in the second quarter, followed in the third quarter by poor execution on a fake punt that should have involved an option pitch but didn't, cost Army seven more net points (four they didn't get on offense, plus three they gave up on special teams as a result of the failed fake punt). 

When you get out your calculators, folks, you'll realize that, on a grand total of SEVEN TOTAL PLAYS, seven individual plays without discipline, Army forfeited 34 total net points to Air Force. Therefore, even if you count Army's last touchdown as a window dressing touchdown, making the final score 49-24, Army still would have won if it had simply maintained the ultimate military value: discipline. Unforced errors led to needlessly ceded points for the enemy. 

Just weeding out the undisciplined plays will work wonders for an Army team that really did play well on a play-in, play-out basis, stuffing Harridge and containing the Air Force triple option better than anyone could have hoped for. 

Who would have thought that run-based Air Force would have beaten Army with gimmicks and tricks instead of old-fashioned smashmouth football? 

Then again, who would have thought that in anything, let alone in football, a bunch of Army men would be undisciplined?  

Think about that one before the next game, and before Navy comes a'callin' a month from now. Top Stories