The Shamrock Series will limp into its hiatus after this weekend’s matchup with Army, which is closer to bowl eligibility than Notre Dame today.
Irish Illustrated spoke with Army beat reporter Sal Interdanto of the Times Herald-Record for an inside look at the Black Knights.
Pete Sampson: You’ve been covering Army for a decade so you’ve seen the rebuilding job of Monken and what came before it. After going 14-46 the past five seasons (including two under Monken), what’s changed this fall with Army 5-4?
Sal Interdanto: When Monken showed up, even during his first couple years, Army just never really showed that it knew how to win football games. Lots of people felt after that 2010 season that Army had turned a corner under Rich Ellerson. I really thought his best team should have been the 2012 team and it went 2-10. At that point I think people felt Army lacked a hard-nosed mentality and a toughness.
The culture had to change here. You’d hear about Army teams in the past, how teams just hated to play against them because they played so hard. That wasn’t the case anymore.
With Monken it seems like Army is getting back to that. They won four games in his first year and certainly could have won more. Army backslid to 2-10 last season, but seven of those losses were by seven points or less. You still saw a team figuring out how to win games. They lost to Wake Forest after a safety dropped an interception. The Navy game was close at the end.
This year I think you’re seeing progress, starting with beating Temple in the opener to get off to a 3-0 start. They’re just figuring out how to win close games now, even if the offense has started to struggle lately.
PS: It’s interesting when you talk about getting back to a point where teams hate to play Army. That sounds like how Notre Dame feels about Navy right now. Is what’s going on at Navy and the success there influencing Army at all?
SI: At Navy it starts with a consistency in coaching under Ken Niumatalolo and his staff. There’s a consistency in the system. Monken hasn’t been here long enough to have that, and that’s something Army needs. I really think what Army wants right now is to be in the conversation with Navy and Air Force. And people don’t talk about Army much.
There is a lot of respect between Army and Navy, between Niumatalolo and Monken. The two coached together in the past at Navy under Paul Johnson and they were graduate assistants together at Hawaii. When Army cornerback Brandon Jackson was killed earlier this season in a car crash, Niumatalolo came to the funeral.
PS: What are you seeing from Army that’s different and what are you seeing that’s impressed you?
SI: I think the resilience. When Brandon Jackson died in that car accident that could have blown away any program. He was such a respected kid. He was going to be a star here. The team bounces back, flies to Texas, beats the doors off UTEP. There was a lousy effort against North Texas, but then they bounce back to beat Wake Forest. They’ve been resilient all year. Really, before the Air Force game last weekend, I would have said they played three bad quarters all season.
PS: What happened against Air Force? The 31-12 loss at home does feel like an outlier.
SI: I don’t think it sounds any kind of alarm because really for the last decade Army has been on the wrong side of these service academy games. It’s felt like Navy and Air Force were better prepared, better coached, played harder. That’s still sort of the case, but maybe Army is getting closer.
If there was an alarm, it would be the secondary for Army because it started two freshman corners. Yes, Air Force didn’t really expose that, but you look out at the field and know Notre Dame will go there. Air Force averaged 32.5 yards per completion in the game. I’d guess Notre Dame is licking its chops to face that secondary.
PS: I’ve watched enough Navy games to know the quarterback makes it all go with he option. What does Army have there?
SI: Army isn’t there where Navy is, where it can lose a quarterback like Keenan Reynolds and just make it work with the replacement of that guy’s replacement. What Will Worth is doing at Navy, that’s a compliment to recruiting, culture and coaching. Air Force has the same kind of thing going.
With Ahmad Bradshaw here, health has been a concern. He’s been healthy this year but was very banged up last season. He’s got to run the ball, though, and that means taking hits.
PS: So Army makes a game of this if what happens?
SI: I don’t know about all season, but maybe last few games the fullback position has to produce but more. Army hasn’t been getting much there beyond the first few weeks. Look at when the Navy option really works, you’ve got Chris Swain and Alexander Teich rolling. The fullback plays a big role. Army needs that this weekend to work.