Stanford wraps up its three- game homestand Saturday at 2pm vs Army. The Cardinal has a long tradition of reaching out to the military academies for games, with Army being the most played against opponent. After last year’s 34-20 win at West Point, Stanford’s record against the military academies improved to 11-10-1 and 6-5 against Army.
Prior to last year Stanford hadn’t played Army since 1979’s 17-13 loss at home.
While scheduling the military academies may not bring in the national television audience like Notre Dame or other high profile teams, the game does mean a lot to the players, the coaches, and many fans as well. Army football is not what it used to be in its glory days, but the traditions are there as is the respect from those they play.
“It is great,” junior linebacker Blake Martinez said of playing Army. “We always respect these guys. Last year when we went to Army it was an amazing experience to see what they do and all they do for us and our country. But once it comes down to the football field and inside the lines, it is just another opponent.”
These are words that are echoed by many. Some of the players come from military families. Some of the fans are veterans of the military. It makes for a matchup deep with respect. Last year’s road trip to West Point certainly left an impression on the traveling team.
“It is unbelievable,” redshirt sophomore linebacker Noor Davis said. “I remember last year when we got a chance to go there. West Point is such a wonderful place. I am a government child. So just to see the military kids and their academy is something special. You are going out there to give it all you have, and they are giving it back but in a few years they are going five years into service. It is something I have a tremendous amount of respect for and I wish them the best of luck. I can’t wait to play them, and shake their hands after the game and thank them for their service to our country.”
Coach David Shaw has military roots through his family as well and has full respect for the team they are about to play against. “They deserve it and they give it. They play hard. You are glad they are representing our country. It is an honor to be on the same field with them.”
Of course respecting an opponent is fine and good leading up to the game, but game day it is all about playing football and while Army may not regularly play at the level of Stanford, they present a unique set of challenges for their opponents.
First and foremost on offense is the triple option. Much like Stanford used to present a challenge to the PAC-12 with a pro-style offense in a world of the spread offenses, you just don’t see the triple option much anymore. So as Stanford prepares for a full slate of conference play, they have to change their defensive approach to battle the option. Cover the full back dive? The quarterback run? The pitch to the tailback? Maybe they drop back and throw. All of the above are options to prepare for on every single play that looks the same at the snap. Discipline is the word for the day.
“They are very good at what they do,” Stanford defensive coordinator Lance Anderson said. “They are very good at executing that offense. We have to by physical. We have to play fast. We have to be very disciplined. It is a good challenge.”
“It is very tough, especially when you play a team like Army,” Davis said. “We are literally playing soldiers. Guys I have a tremendous amount of respect for. You just have to be very disciplined because it is in their job description to be disciplined. We just have to play sound fundamentally and play disciplined and each of us has to take care of our own responsibilities on the option.”
The other aspect to the offense that is much discussed is the blocking approach that Army uses. There is nothing new about cut blocking at the line of scrimmage. But Army will go low at the knees anywhere on the field. They do it legally and there are no cheap shots, but it can be a more dangerous approach for a defense that is not ready for it.
“It is kind of scary just knowing that at any moment they can come out and basically take your legs out,” Martinez said. “Since fall camp we have been working on it just to defeat the blocks and get around them.”
The key to fending off the cut block is a combination of the hands and the eyes. Anderson explains:
“You have to be able to use your hands. But the key thing is to get your eyes in the right place and move your feet at the same time. But yeah, you have to get your hands involved to avoid the cut block.”
More so then in any other game the defensive technique by the players needs to be razor sharp. Players need to be avoiding blocks that can be coming low at the knees, while staying in their assignment against any one of three potential options coming at them. It can make for a lot going on all at the same time. While a defense may contain the option for several plays in a row, it just takes one mistake and BOOM, there is a big play.
Again, discipline and technique are the words for the day. It is cliché in some ways to talk about assignment football, but to cover the triple option there is nothing wrong with cliché.
Too add a few wrinkles to the game, Army’s new head coach Jeff Monken looks like he wants to throw the ball a little more. 7-for-7 for 125 yards may not sound like a lot in the modern passing era, but for Army in a 47-39 win over Buffalo in week one, it was executed to perfection.
On defense, Army likes to bring the pressure. Quarterback Kevin Hogan noted that Army likes to mix things up and blitz anybody, anytime, from anywhere. Again, communication and discipline on the offensive line will be a key factor in keeping the quarterback upright and healthy.
In the end, Stanford enters the game as a 28 point favorite over Army. On paper, that is a blowout. But for Stanford to cover that large margin of victory they will have to play assignment football to perfection. Regardless of the final score though, when the two teams meet at the center of the field there will be nothing but love and respect for the opponent after a hard fought battle on the gridiron.