Army at the Half

With Army's 16-13 overtime win against Vandy on Saturday, the Cadets find themselves with a 3-3 record halfway through the schedule. Unlike the last few years, where Army has pretty much been unable to win in the second half of the season, this year's slate still has winnable games, giving fans hope that a bowl appearance is still a possibility. Let's have a short look at the first six contests.

On offense, it appears that the wraps are coming off a bit on what has been to this point a very conservative unit. Army came out this past week and added some counter plays to the running attack and even threw some screens to the wide-outs, things that have not been seen from this group in previous games.

Make no mistake though, this has been a work in progress. The biggest problem has been the Black Knight's inability to generate big plays. The slotbacks have not shown the speed to beat their defenders to the corners. There has been no explosiveness from the fullback position. The quarterbacks at this point have had accuracy issues and little touch on their passes. This has left Ali Villaneuva largely invisible, as passes intended for him are not placed where only he can catch them. He has no catches at all the last two games. This leaves the team in the position to have to grind it out, something that's been tough for them because of mistakes and small gains on 1st and 2nd down. Third and long is tough on any option offense, but even tougher on one that has no playmakers. The most amazing stat is that Army has only lost 5 of their 20 fumbles to this point. But many of the ones they've recovered have killed promising drives and has left the team unable to convert on third and long.

But there is some good news. The struggling offensive line had their best game against Vandy, enabling the offense to gain 5-6 yards on many plays that were getting stuffed in previous games. There has been continued progress by quarterback Trent Steelman. His option reads have been good and pitches to the slots have been on target. His toughness was especially apparent on his 4th and goal touchdown run against Vandy. It will be fun to watch this team with him at the helm the next few years.

The strength of this team remains its defense. For years, the goal of the offense was to hang on to the ball as long as possible to keep the defense on the bench. But now, the defense has been the unit that's kept the team in all its games. Rich Ellerson's flex defense fits his players like a glove, putting players in position to make big stops and make some game-changing big plays causing opponents to turn the ball over. Army has not been giving up the big play nearly as much as years past, and fans can bo confident that the trend will continue. It will be interesting to see how they handle the option offenses they will face against Air Force and Navy. If they are able to not overpursue and get burnt on misdirection and trick plays, this defense should give Army a fair chance to beat either one of their service rivals.

Special teams play, which has been a major liability in the early going, is also showing signs of improvement. Damian Hunter has had a couple clutch kickoff returns, setting up a short field for the offense. The punting game has been effective, leaving opponents in bad field position on numerous occasions. And of course Alex Carlton has become a long range weapon fot the Cadets, something Army hasn't had since the mid 90's. The big weakness remains kickoff returns, including a deflating touchdown to Vandy last week. Unlike previous years, the team has the mental toughness to rebound from opponent's big plays.

So does a bowl game remain the picture? This week's tilt against a very physical Temple team will go a long way towards answering that question. But if the team can continue to show steady improvement, some of the remaining games thought to be a stretch might yield surprising results.

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