It has been an equally tough season for the Keydets, who had hoped that year two under triple option-minded coach Sparky Woods would lead to bigger and better things after a 4-7 year in 2008. Yet even while Woods' team has had little to brag about in terms of wins and losses, the Keydets haven't been completely helpless this year, and have played some close games with deceiving final scores. Take last weekend's loss to Liberty, for example. The Flames (ranked 16th at the time in the FCS) were actually outgained by VMI, but were the beneficiaries of eight Keydet turnovers in the VMI loss. With just three games to go (including the season finale against 7-3 Navy) Army needs to win out to gain bowl eligibility, making this week's game as "must win" as they come. Here are three position battles to watch for during Saturday's action.
VMI QB/PR/SB Tim Maypray vs. Army LB Kyler Martin
To put it simply, Maypray is the kind of player that opposing defenses need to gameplan around. An all-purpose athlete in every sense of the word, the senior was named the Big South Offensive Player of the Year for the preseason. While small in stature, Maypray can be utilized in a variety of different ways, and will likely line up at slotback, receiver, and punt returner for the Keydets on Saturday. The former quarterback currently leads the team in all-purpose yards, and averages some 169.9 total yards per game, including nearly 500 yards on the ground. He also leads the team in scoring with nine touchdowns, including an 86-yard punt return touchdown. While he is an unquestioned playmaker on the team, he has also had trouble holding onto the ball at times this year, and added two critical fumbles against Liberty last week. Stopping Maypray will be a challenge for Army this week, especially considering that stud middle linebacker Stephen Anderson was lost for the season with an ACL injury against Air Force. The team's leading tackler, Anderson was also the emotional leader of the Army defense, and the job of replacing him will fall to plebe Kyler Martin. Asking a true freshman to step up is a lot in this defense, especially considering that he played wide receiver in high school. While Martin is more than athletic enough to deal with Maypray, he'll have to be mentally dialed in to stop the VMI playmaker.
VMI QB Kyle Hughes vs. Army DE Josh McNary
The Keydets and their triple option offense are among the most potent in the FCS, but their usual schematic advantage may end up being a disadvantage against Army, whose defenders have had the benefit of defending Army's own triple option offense as well as Navy's offense in past season. One Army player who is particularly adept at playing against the option, and, by extension, confusing the quarterback, is defensive end Josh McNary. Not only are McNary's 11.5 sacks this season a single-season Army record, but the juniors 19 tackles for a loss are by far the most on the team. McNary's unique ability to work as both an effective pass rusher and run stuffer will make executing against Army's defense a tall task for VMI quarterback Kyle Hughes. Hughes, who is considered the best passing quarterback on VMI's roster, isn't as athletic as a runner as Maypray, but is seasoned and veteran in leading the offense. Still, he has yet to face a read key with the athleticism or intelligence as McNary, who'll likely be in his face for much of the afternoon. If Hughes and the Keydet offense are unable gameplan around McNary, then expect Army's defense to stop VMI's offense in its tracks.
The most telling statistic in Army's current midseason swoon? One touchdown in the past six games. Particularly troublesome for the Black Knights has been their inability to score consistently in the red zone, a point augmented by the team's lack of playmakers on offense. Army quarterback Trent Steelman has been hit or miss at times this season in regards to making the correct reads, and against VMI he'll likely have a more challenging time than in past weeks, as he'll be facing a defense which is well schooled in defending the option in practice. Compounding this challenge will be Army's depth at the position going into the game, as junior Chip Bowden was lost for the season last week. Byron Allen is an experienced and tenacious defender who thrives playing close to the line of scrimmage, and will do his best on Saturday to confuse Steelman in making his pitch reads. For Army to move the ball effectively on Saturday, Steelman will have to show that he not only has the instincts to take advantage of Allen's aggressiveness against the run, but that he also has the speed to outrace the safety once he hits the second level. Otherwise, Army's offense could find itself at home in its familiar red-zone struggles.