3 Reasons Why the Mids will Win:
With seven straight victories over the Black Knights (a series record) it sounds ridiculous to assert that Army's players and coaches enter Saturday's game with an air of overconfidence. Yet that seems to be exactly the case, as Army coach Rich Ellerson, as well as wide receiver Ali Villanueva and nose tackle Victor Ugenyi, have made statements within the past week predicting an Army victory. Ellerson said that his team has been "gaining" on Navy, while Ugenyi told Philadelphia Inquirer writer Joe Juliano that, "after we win this game, I don't know what I'm going to do." Those are some loaded statements considering the recent history of the rivalry, and will more than likely fuel a Navy team which itself has a lot to prove after falling 24-17 to Hawaii two weeks ago. Any hope Ellerson and his team had in ‘sneaking up' on Navy was lost with these statements.
Army really did look to be ‘gaining' on Navy during the 2006 and 2007 games, with the Black Knights opening strong on defense in both games. The problem for the Black Knights, however, was putting together consistent offensive drives, something the team especially struggled with in last year's 34-0 loss. In the concluding effort to year one in the option, the Black Knights managed just 154 yards of total offense, with fifty of those yards coming in mop-up duty in the fourth quarter. Buddy Green's gameplan focused on confusing quarterback Chip Bowden, who spent much of the game inside a "phone booth" with fullback Colin Mooney. This year the Black Knights face a similar challenge, as plebe Trent Steelman makes his first ever start of an Army-Navy game. Steelman has struggled in making the correct option reads this season (an understandable prospect given his youth), but on Saturday he'll face his toughest challenge of the year when he goes up against Navy's veteran front. Remember, even Navy great Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku Enhada struggled in his first Army-Navy game, so it's hard to imagine Steelman having much success come Saturday.
Saying a team is "more talented" or "more athletic" than another can be a slippery slope (especially with the variety of college schemes and the hit-or-miss nature of recruiting), but even most Army fans agree that when it comes to the Army-Navy rivalry as of late, Navy has had the edge in team speed. It wasn't just Reggie Campbell breaking off a kick return for a touchdown in 2007 or Jordan Eddington running down Patrick Mealey in 2008, but it has also been the little things which have proved Navy's advantage in personnel. Of particular interest is Navy's defensive team speed, which could play a role in mitigating an Army option offense which comes into the game without a definite "play maker" on the edge. While Army's offense may still be able to move the ball on Navy, not having a play-maker increases Army's risk of turning the ball over, making Navy's athletic edge a definite advantage for Ken Niumatalolo's team.
3 Reasons Why the Black Knights will win:
Has Ellerson been the home-run coaching hire some Army fans expected when he took over for Stan Brock after last season? The jury is still out, but if there is one edge that Ellerson has over his predecessor, it's that he and his staff know the option – both from an offensive and defensive perspective. He also knows coach Niumatalolo, and he won't be at a loss when drawing up a gameplan to combat Navy's scheme. While the game will ultimately come down to execution, Ellerson's history with Niumatalolo and the option give Army fans reason to hope.
Just like the Navy defense, Ellerson's unit will come into this game with the advantage of having two weeks to prepare for their opponent's offense, which oh-by-the-way they practice against all offseason. Despite their 5-6 record the Black Knights enter the game with the 18th ranked total defense in the country, led by record setting defensive end Josh McNary (3rd in the nation in sacks, 2nd in TFL) and safety Donovan Travis (six interceptions, 77 solo tackles). Army's defense is incredibly disruptive, and after showing improvement in defending the option over the last three years, the unit could be in for its best performance against Navy during the Mids' current run. One thing to keep in mind: quarterback Ricky Dobbs is making his first career start against Army.
A Fresh Attitude
Last year the Black Knights limped into this game after three straight losses, while this year's Black Knight team comes into the game riding a two-game winning streak. And while Army's wins over VMI and North Texas don't exactly match up to recent Navy wins over Notre Dame and Delaware, there is no doubting that Army's players enter this game with a brand new attitude and renewed focus. While Navy fans may choose to view Ellerson and Ugenyi's statements as cocky and misplaced, there might be some merit to them. This year's game is also different in that an Army victory would mean the Black Knights get to go to the Eagle Bank Bowl, breaking a streak of twelve losing seasons. If that's not extra incentive for the most incentive-packed game of the year, I don't know what is.
Rich Ellerson's assertion that Army has "gained" on Navy is debatable given the way in which the Black Knights have won some of their games this year, but there is no denying that this year's Army team comes into the game more accomplished than last year's squad. Still, the Midshipmen own decisive advantages in terms of both personnel and experience, and given the prevalence of some early "bulletin board" material, won't get caught sleeping against Army. I think Navy's defense comes up big again this year, with Navy taking this game 31-10.