The biggest positive of course, is getting off to a 2-1 record. For the first time since 1996, the team is over the .500 mark. And it's a big deal. No longer do you hear the same comments from players and coaches trying to shake off another bad start to the season. Now with some success in the beginning of the season, you get the sense that the team really believes in can compete with all their opponents and that wins are no longer a surprise but rather something that can happen at any game.
Fans going to the games can have that same sense of optimism. That's a huge change in the whole culture of the program. But as we have seen several 3-3 starts turn into season ending six game losing streaks, things can still take a big turn for the worst. So let's look at things so far.
Offensively, things have been a mixed bag. Rich Ellerson has installed a true triple option, but has kept the wraps on pretty tightly. In all three of their games, the Black Knights have marched right down the field for touchdowns on their first possession, only to go immediately into a funk once the opponent's defense made adjustments. This was especially true in the opener against EMU, with the offense rendered impotent in the 2nd and 3rd quarters. They awoke in the 4th with a pair of dominating drives, giving fans the hope that the O would continue to rock on all cylinders. But the games against Ball State and especially Duke proved otherwise. Duke was able to stack the box, with their defenders easily able to beat the Army ball carriers to the corner. Army's inexperience on the offensive line has also been a big factor, with fullback dives for the most part ineffective and plebe quarterback Trent Steelman unable to break free for consistent gainers.
The offense has seen the welcome addition of a true TO, with frequent pitches to the slotbacks, but each pitch has fans holding their collective breath, as many have been off target and many on target pitches simply being dropped by the backs. Army was fortunate to recover 5 of their 6 miscues this past Saturday, but similar performances in the upcoming weeks will make it tough for the team to become a consistent winner.
This space was very critical of the previous coaching staff's refusal to employ misdirection plays and an occasional razzle-dazzle play to keep the opposition on its toes. Strangely, this staff has also shown that same reluctance. Hopefully, Coach Ellerson and his staff will begin to open things up. Ali Villanueva has been used much more as a decoy than an actual threat. It is a novelty to have someone his size at WR, but the Cadets only have him there for this season. So integrating him into the attack on a more consistent basis as soon as possible can only help other receivers get open and open up some passing to the running backs.
The best news so far is the emergence of play makers on the defense. Make no mistake, the D still gives up yardage in big chunks. Even Ball State had 375 yards of offense last week. But this defense has been terrific against the run, forcing teams to rely more on the passing game than in past seasons. Missed tackles have been a problem for many years, but with this bunch, the tackling has been sure. All three opponents have had several rushes stopped for negative yardage and the Army pass rush has been a revelation with sacks coming much more frequently than in the past. More importantly, they've been able to hurry opposing quarterbacks into some ill-advised throws, enabling the team to make the big play with interceptions and knock-downs, the biggest coming with the TD return against Ball State.
But Army will live or die by that pressure. The times that they haven't been able to generate that pressure have led to wide open receivers and game changing plays, as witnessed during the Duke game. Army remains weak in pass coverage, which has been an age-old problem and is unlikely to change. With teams coming up on the schedule with more experienced offensive lines and more athletic receivers, it will be interesting to see how this defense will fare.
The biggest opportunity for improvement lies on special teams. For years, Army has had a strong kicking game no matter how bad the team was overall. But recently, Army has lacked a long range kicker with the ability to make kicks over 40 yards. And with an offense that struggles to put together long drives, such a kicker is imperative. The answer could be Alex Carlton, who has already banged one through from 43 yards. The thought here is the kicking game may very well be the difference in 1 or 2 games, and could be the difference in going to a bowl game or staying home.
Punter Johnathon Bulls has done pretty well. He only lines up 10 yards behind the line of scrimmage, which shrinks to 5-6 yards when he hits the ball. But his kicks have largely been effective with no big returns as yet by the opposition. Kickoff coverage has not been good, with the typical kick giving the opponent possession between the 35-40 yard line. Looks like a lot more pooch kicks may be on the menu during kick-offs.
Army fans should feel great with a 2-1 start. There's no question that the team has the means to hang in every game for the rest of the schedule. It says here that the team will be fortunate to be 3-3 when it comes to the mid-point of the schedule. But the second half should be when the miseries of the past few seasons come to an end. The goal of playing a 13th game in December may well be realized.
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