While the Commodores (2-3) have had their own struggles this season, all their loses have come to SEC conference teams, including ranked LSU and Ole Miss teams. Still, when you consider that the Cadets are arguably just a few plays from being 4-1 right now, even an SEC team like Vandy is beatable, especially if Army's players can win the all-important personnel matchups. Here are three to keep an eye on for Saturday.
If we learned one thing from the play of the three service academy football teams in week five, it was that special teams – in particular the kicking game – can literally make or break a team's chances. Not only did Army miss out on the opportunity to defeat Tulane last weakened when Alex Carlton sailed his game-ending 37-yard field goal attempt wide right, but Air Force fell in overtime to Navy after PK Erik Soderberg missed a potentially game-tying attempt wide left. The Navy and Air Force matchup was literally defined by clutch field goals, as Navy kicker Joe Buckley's three kicks (including a clutch 47-yarder before the end of the first half) proved to be the difference. The Black Knights continue to struggle on offense, and their inability to score consistently in the red zone (one touchdown in six red zone attempts against Tulane) makes converting on field goals all the more important. Vanderbilt has had their own red-zone scoring problems, ranking 112th out of 120 teams in red-zone scoring efficiency on the season. With stats like that, it's completely possible, perhaps even probable, that Saturday's game could once again come down to the kickers. The Commodores' PK, Ryan Fowler, is 5-9 on field goal attempts for the season, and has only managed a long of 37. He also missed two field goals in last weekend's loss to Ole Miss. Considering the circumstances, whichever kicker is able to land the majority of his field goals on Saturday could end up deciding the game.
Army C Zach Peterson vs. Vanderbilt WLB Patrick Benoist
Army's option offense has been stifled over the last two games, thanks in large part to the ability of opposing defenses to take away the fullback from the offense. Army FB Kingsley Ehie managed just 2.9 yards per carry against Tulane last Saturday, and was not a factor against Iowa State two weeks ago. As any option adherent knows, the offense becomes all the more effective with the establishment of the fullback, a factor which cannot occur without good cut blocking up-front. Zach Peterson really struggled against Tulane last week and his job of getting to the second level to take out linebackers will be even harder this week, as he'll face one of the best in the SEC conference in Patrick Benoist. Benoist is one of the most athletic linebackers in the entire country and is currently second on his team with 43 tackles, and could present major problems to the establishment of both the inside and outside running games. If Army is to have success on the perimeter against Vandy, they will first need to establish success inside, which means Peterson will have to show the ability to get Benoist on the ground.
The Commodores have been anemic through the air this season, with quarterback Larry Smith hitting on just 46.5% of his passes while also throwing four interceptions to only two touchdowns. Knowing how opportunistic Army has been on defense this season (10 turnovers gained, including six interceptions) it's likely that Vanderbilt headman Bobby Johnson will call a conservative gameplan that will emphasize the run game. True freshman Warren Norman has been a pleasant surprise for the Commodores this year, and has shown off why he was a high school track star, rushing for 6.7 yards per carry and 3 TDs through five games. He'll likely be supplemented by senior Jared Hawkins, who is finally looking fully healthy after an injury limited him early this year. With a slew of talented runners, Johnson will likely try to wear down Army's defensive line, so it will be essential that the Black Knights establish their own run defense early and force the Commodores to take to the air. Essential in that task will be nose tackle Victor Ugenyi, who is second on Army with 7.5 tackles for a loss this year. Ugenyi has been instrumental in disrupting opposing running games, and has allowed Army linebacker Stephan Anderson to quickly become one of the NCAA's leaders in total tackles. Last week, Ugenyi helped Army hold Tulane running back Andre Anderson to just 28 yards rushing on 16 carries before a long Anderson run at the end of the game skewed the statistics. If the 6-foot-3 senior can control his gaps and help to shut down Norman and Hawkins before they get going, look for Vanderbilt's offense to be exposed, and for Army's defensive backs and linebackers to frustrate Smith when he is forced to take to the air.