Winners of 10 games and back-to-back bowls, the Army Black Knights are faced with big expectations for the first time in recent memory.
Team: Army Black Knights
Conference: FBS Independent
Stadium: Michie Stadium (West Point, NY)
2017 Record: 10-3 (Won Armed Forces Bowl vs. San Diego State)
Head Coach: Jeff Monken (4th season, 24-26)
At the turn of the century, it had normally taken the Army Black Knights football team three or four years to win 10 games. Between 1985 and 2010, they posted a mere pair of bowl victories. They lost their lead in the famous rivalry with Navy, failing to tally a single win in the 2001-2014 editions.
But after so much heartbreak, so many false saviors, the tide has officially turned in West Point.
The Black Knights were one of 26 Football Bowl Subdivision teams to earn at least 10 victories, reaching the precipice for the first time since 1996. The final pair of wins were perhaps the biggest pair in the new century for the Army football program. The penultimate game of the season was a 14-13 win over Navy in the yearly visit to Philadelphia, one that gave the Knights their first winning streak in the long-standing rivalry since 1995-96. Weeks later, they engaged in a fierce offensive shootout in Fort Worth, earning a 42-35 win over San Diego State in the Armed Forces Bowl. Combined with their 2016 win over North Texas in the Heart of Texas Bowl, it commemorated the first time the Black Knights earned back-to-back bowl victories since 1985-86.
Now, the question becomes … what can they do next?
After so many years of trying to rejuvenate a dormant offense, the Black Knights have found the perfect formula: more or less turning their backs to the forward pass entirely, engaging in an unconventional triple-option offense.
While unconventional, the rush-happy unit proved extremely efficient, fumbling just four times in nearly 700 offensive plays and ranking second in the nation in time of possession, leading to drives that ate the clock, long drives keeping a questionable defense off the field.
That’s not to say the quarterback position doesn’t have its purpose in West Point. Three-year starter Ahmad Bradshaw has departed Army as the fifth-leading rusher in program history, taking the team record-high 1,746 rushing yards with him. 2,946 other yards, however, return, most of it coming in the form of the top three names below Bradshaw in the rushing tallies, Darnell Woolfolk (829 yards), Kell Walker (629), and Andy Davidson (627). That group helped guide the Knights to the nation’s most potent run game, leading the nation with 4,710 yards (362.3 per game). Walker, in particular, will be an interesting case. Tallying 7.3 yards per carry as a sophomore, the coaching staff has hinted that he could potentially see some snaps at quarterback as well, in the wake of Bradshaw’s departure.
In the meantime, the team has announced that junior Kelvin Hopkins Jr. will get the start for the team’s opening game at Duke. Hopkins played sparingly as a sophomore, tallying 116 total yards and appearing in seven games. He has yet, however, to play a full game, so there could be reliance on the runners, especially with strong competition in the first quarter of the season.
Such an emphasis on the run game makes blocking help imperative. Army returns only a single starter from last year’s blockers, center Bryce Holland, so that could be a concern headed into 2018. The Black Knights seem satisfied with their speed in the backfield but the front line departures could force youngsters like incoming freshman tackle Jack Topping to make big contributions immediately.
One of the other reasons the time of possession victory is so important is because it masks the shortcomings of a bit of a normally undersized defense, particularly on the front three.
However, last season saw an improvement on the defensive side, finishing 32nd in the nation in yardage. The improvement was especially surprising considering the number of forced substitutions in West Point. Many of the victims will be back in 2018, potentially for a full season. Cornerback Elijah Riley (20 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 2 turnovers) missed the first six games of the season due to academic issues. Safety Jalen Sharp (10 tackles) was limited to two games thanks to a knee injury. Three-year starter Rhyan England is gone, but Max Regan earned plenty of experience when the departed England was forced to miss time with yet another injury.
The teams that were able to break the Black Knights’ defense did so via a familiar tactic: the run game. For example, a September loss at Tulane saw the Knights let up a whopping 253 yards and three scores on the ground. Army does have some experience and size on their line this season, headlined by tackle Raymond Wright (6’3, 285 lbs.) and end Wunmi Oyetuga (6’4, 276 lbs.). Behind them, the team will welcome in a three-star recruit in the form of Kwabena Bonsu, a 6’3 tackle from Georgia.
The top tacklers, each from the linebacking group, return in 2018, led by James Nachtigal (103 tackles) and Cole Christiansen (84 tackles), though there will be some further transition in the form of Chandler Ramirez. He began his career as an outside linebacker and special teams contributor, but an attempt to make him a defensive end went awry, pushing him back to the outside. Despite the awkwardness of the situation, Monken praised Ramirez for working his way back, calling him a “pleasant surprise” according to HudsonValley.com’s Sal Interdonato.
Army football is at a point where success is no longer judged by the final game of the regular season. Beating Navy remains the talking point, but the Knights are a nationally recognized program again, and that’s apparent from the schedule, which features a visit to Oklahoma (the first of a home-and-home to be completed in 2020) and a non-Navy game in an NFL stadium (October 13 at Levi’s Stadium against San Jose State).
With great power, however, comes great responsibility. Impressive and efficient as the Knights’ offensive prowess has been with the triple option, it’s asking a lot to duplicate the success behind an offensive line in transition and an undersized defense.
At the end of the day, West Point’s pros definitely outweigh the cons. Asking for another 10-win campaign may be just a little too much to ask for, but the clock-eating, throwback offense, filled with firepower, should never be discounted. They might not steal one of their big road games against Power 5 competition, but this is an independent worth watching. Not only can they beat Navy, they can beat a fair amount of teams now.
Prediction: 8-4 (Armed Forces Bowl)
|August 31||@ Duke||7:00 p.m.||ESPNU|
|September 8||Liberty||12:00 p.m.||CBSSN|
|September 15||Hawaii||12:00 p.m.||CBSSN|
|September 22||@ Oklahoma||7:00 p.m.||TBD|
|September 29||@ Buffalo||TBD||TBD|
|October 13||vs. San Jose State (@ Santa Clara)||TBD||TBD|
|October 20||Miami (Ohio)||12:00 p.m.||CBSSN|
|October 27||@ Eastern Michigan||TBD||TBD|
|November 3||Air Force||12:00 p.m.||CBSSN|
|November 10||Lafayette||12:00 p.m.||CBSSN|
|November 17||Colgate||12:00 p.m.||CBSSN|
|December 8||Navy (@ Philadelphia)||3:00 p.m.||CBS|