Army head coach Jeff Monken is in his second year at the helm at West Point, and though his 5-12 overall record doesn’t say so, he has the Black Knights trending in the right direction.
Army will host Duke Saturday at noon for the first time in six years, looking to improve on its 1-4 record. Coming off a 4-8 season in Monken’s inaugural campaign and without offensive cogs Angel Santiago, Larry Dixon and Terry Baggett—a trio which combined for 2,487 yards and 21 touchdowns in 2014—expectations were fairly low for the Black Knights heading into this year.
But a closer inspection of its 1-4 record reveals that Army has not exactly been a punching bag for its opponents. The Black Knights’ four losses have come by a total of just 16 points, and they have outscored their opponents this season overall.
Even in last week’s 20-14 loss to 4-1 Penn State, Army was driving in Nittany Lion territory for the go-ahead score before the offense stalled—and the Blue Devils could be in for a rude awakening if they choose to overlook the Black Knights.
“It’s a big, challenging week again, and [we are] going to be playing an Army team that really could be undefeated right now if you look at their tape,” Duke head coach David Cutcliffe said. “They’ve played well enough to win every game, and obviously we know they haven’t, they know they haven’t. But they’re what you would call a great culture.... As you watch these guys play, they’re talented and they’re relentless.”
Like most of the other military schools, Army features a triple-option attack as the staple of its offense. The Black Knights have been using a dual-quarterback system, splitting snaps under center between senior A.J. Schurr and sophomore Ahmad Bradshaw.
Bradshaw currently leads the team with 397 yards on the ground and 194 more through the air after not seeing any varsity action a year ago. Schurr—who started his first game as a junior last season—has gotten about one-third of the action at quarterback and is tied with Bradshaw for the team lead with four rushing touchdowns, including a 56-yard score against Penn State.
Duke is already familiar defending the triple-option offense after limiting Georgia Tech’s top-ranked rushing attack to less than three yards per carry two weeks ago in Durham. But Cutcliffe pointed to the complexity of Army’s triple-option formations, specifically the use of tight-end sets and unbalanced alignments on the offensive line.
“With Georgia Tech, they only had a couple formations we had to worry about, but with Army—they have a multitude,” linebacker Dwayne Norman said. “It’s always just being on my toes and it has me thinking a little more than I wanted to, so I want to get a little bit more comfortable with their system.”
Despite a strong rushing attack that averages 5.6 yards per carry and an offense that has produced touchdowns on 12 of its 13 red zone trips thus far, Army has only put up 27.6 points per game—a figure lower than that of the much-maligned Blue Devil offense. Turnovers have been the major culprit—the Black Knights have lost six fumbles in addition to three interceptions on just 37 passing attempts.
Against a stiff Duke defense that has only allowed six red zone trips through five games, the Black Knights cannot afford to cough up the ball.
“You can’t have [turnovers]. They end up being a dead play if you don’t turn it over,” Manken said at his press conference Tuesday. “That’s what happened on the very last drive of the game. On first down, we fumbled and the ball hit the ground and [we] had second-and-10. We’ve got to take care of the ball.”
On defense, the Black Knights’ run-stopping has made tremendous strides from last year. Army—which runs a 3-4 defensive scheme—allowed its opponents to average 5.3 yards per carry in 2014, a number that has been trimmed to 4.1 this season.
The Black Knights return defensive backs Jeremy Timpf and Chris Carnegie, who accounted for six interceptions last year and have already combined for 58 tackles this season. Their activity in defending both the running and passing game—as well as the emergence of junior linebacker Andrew King, who ranks second in the nation with 10 tackles for loss—could pose problems for a Duke offense that struggled to run the ball against Boston College last weekend.
“I think the whole defense has been playing better and that helps King play his position better. When other guys are playing their gaps he can play his and make some plays,” Moken said. “Personally, I think [he] is a big leader on our team and is probably one of the biggest leaders we have on defense.”