Few rivalries are as heated as Army-Air Force, which despite its pageantry and off-field significance, remains as heated on the field as ever. Air Force escaped with a close win at Michie Stadium last season, and the Falcons will be looking to become bowl eligible with a sixth win when Army visits Falcon Stadium this week. With the Falcons losing to Navy earlier this year, Army can still accomplish its goal of winning the CIC trophy, but for that to occur Army will have to win the all important personnel matchups against what some believe is a more talented Air Force team. Here are three to watch when the eyes of the college football nation tune in this weekend.
Air Force NG Ben Garland vs. Army C Zach Peterson
Seldom are Service Academy teams led by a single player who can so dominate the opposing team that it causes said team to virtually change their entire gameplan to account for him. Yet that is exactly the case with 6-foot-5 Falcon nose guard Ben Garland, who routinely commands double teams throughout the Mountain West Conference. Garland, while a dominating force against all of Air Force's opponents this year, has played particularly well against both Navy and Army in the past, and shows excellent ability at diagnosing and shutting down the inside of option oriented offenses. This wouldn't be so much of a problem under usual circumstances, but combined with the aggressive play of Air Force's outside linebacker to ‘pinch' and force the option inside, it becomes a Catch-22 for even a trained option quarterback (Just ask Ricky Dobbs.) Garland is incredibly effective because of combination of mass, quickness, and leverage, and showed it against Navy earlier this year when he went toe-to-toe with Navy center Curtis Bass. Garland got the better of Bass in that game, and recorded 7 tackles and a forced fumble en route to helping the Falcons limit Navy to their lowest offensive output of the year. Last season he played a similarly effective game against Army, and helped to shut down the fullback dive and midline option. Army will call upon Zach Peterson to try to stand up to the nose guard, who will line up right on top of the 6-foot-1, 267-lbs junior. Peterson had trouble against Rutgers two weeks ago, and could struggle playing against an odd-man front like Air Force. With the lack of established depth at fullback, coupled with Army's inability to get the ball consistently on the perimeter, it will be essential for Peterson to show that he can hold his own against the "immovable object" in Garland.
When the Air Force defense needs a spark, more often than not it's Reggie Rembert who provides it. Suspended for the early part of the season, the 5-foot-8 junior does it all for the Falcons, excelling on both special teams and on defense. He's a lockdown corner who has the ability to break on the ball (he returned an interception for a touchdown against Navy) while he's also an underrated tackler who isn't afraid to stick his nose in the backfield. It's this latter attribute which will serve him well against Army, as the Cadets will likely try to get the ball on the perimeter because of the dominating presence of Garland inside. The Black Knights have been looking for playmakers all season, and may have found one two weeks ago in freshman Lonnie Liggins, who showed a great first step and excellent burst on a 17-yard touchdown run against Rutgers. Liggins isn't just a great runner, however, and showed that he can set up cut blocks when he sprung quarterback Trent Steelman for a 33-yard gain against Rutgers (it was Steelman's longest run of the year.) He'll have his work cut out for him though in trying to take down Rembert, who does an excellent job at turning plays to the inside and not giving up containment to the outside of the field. Rembert is particularly apt at dodging cut blocks, and will present a tough target for Liggins. Still, if the Army freshman can get the Air Force defensive back on the ground, expect Army to have a chance at establishing the perimeter run game.
Rodriguez has been outstanding this season for the Black Knights, recording 41 tackles (fourth on the team) from his hybrid WHIP position. He's been especially helpful in helping Army help confuse opposing quarterbacks, who've been harassed all year by Army defensive lineman Josh McNary (10.5 sacks). Rodriguez hurt his back early in the games against Rutgers and had to come out, and his presence was sorely missed late in the game, as Rutgers running back Joe Martinek galloped for more than 100 yards. While he's currently listed as questionable for this week's game, he'll do everything he can to play against the Falcons, who are led by what appears to be a finally healthy Tim Jefferson at quarterback. After spending much of the last month and a half hobbled by injury, Jefferson sparked the Air Force offense to their highest offensive output last week since a week three win against New Mexico, in the process passing for two touchdowns and showing quickness and effectiveness in making his reads. With Jefferson back at the controls, Army will need Rodriguez and company to be dialed in on Saturday.