It will take a while for all of the College Football Playoff hullabaloo to die down, but let’s all celebrate what is happening in Week 15. No, it isn’t my first documented usage of “hullabaloo” in a BangTheBook article. It is the annual Army/Navy Game. From a bowl eligibility standpoint, this game means nothing to either team. In every other facet, it means everything to both teams. Navy has been installed as a 3.5-point favorite at BetOnline Sportsbook for the 118th installment of this great American rivalry. Navy leads 60-50-7, but is out for revenge this season because Army won for the first time since 2001 last season. This year’s game, and the next three, are at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia.
Last year, Navy was in the worst spot it has ever been in for this rivalry. The Midshipmen had just played in the American Athletic Conference Championship Game the week prior and lost to Temple. It was the first conference championship game for Navy. The Middies averaged just 4.3 yards per carry in that loss to Army by a 21-17 score. Army didn’t care how it happened. Breaking the long drought meant so much to that program and that branch of the military. Army hasn’t won two straight in this rivalry since 1995-96. Army, who has already accepted a bid to the Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl, is 8-3 on the year and 5-6 ATS. Navy is just 6-5 straight up and around .500 ATS.
There is a little bit of hardware on the line in this one. The Commander-in-Chief Trophy is up for grabs. Army hasn’t won that since 1996. A 21-0 win over Air Force for the Black Knights means that a win here would bring that trophy back to West Point for the first time in over 20 years. Navy beat Air Force 48-45, so the Midshipmen would take the trophy back to Annapolis with a win.
This is the best run of Army football since the mid-80s. Army is going to consecutive bowl games for the first time since 1984-85. Army has a shot at a ninth win this season, and possibly a 10th in the bowl game. Army has not won 10 games since 1996 and hadn’t won more than seven games since 1996 prior to last year. Head coach Jeff Monken has done an incredible job with this program. It took some time and some growing pains, with a 6-18 start to his career, but the Black Knights are bowling and have a great shot at winning two in a row in this rivalry. Signs were there in 2015 when Army lost seven games by a touchdown or less in a 2-10 season. The Army ground game has been magnificent this season. In fact, the Black Knights have won a few games without even throwing a pass. On the year, Army has 649 carries for 4,049 yards, which averages out to 6.2 yards per carry. Last year’s offense had 5.6 yards per carry. This year’s group has 43 rushing touchdowns, with quarterback Ahmad Bradshaw and feature back Darnell Woolfolk tied with 11. Bradshaw is just 12-of-39 passing with a 1/2 TD/INT ratio. Obviously the familiarity between these two teams in terms of styles tends to limit scores and stats, but Army, for the first time in a long time, appears to be the more efficient triple-option offense in this rivalry.
Service academies do tend to struggle defensively. They are very disciplined, but are often undersized. The Army defense fits that bill. The Black Knights have allowed 6.1 yards per play this season and rank 97th in that department. They have only allowed 361 yards per game with the slow paced offense and the ability to win the time of possession battle, but this is a defenses susceptible to big plays. Army ranks in the bottom 30 in yards per attempt and only has five interceptions this season. Opponents have completed 62.7 percent of their passes. Obviously run defense is the more important element in a game like this. Army’s run defense ranks tied for 91st with 4.77 yards per carry allowed. The familiarity here often helps keep both teams below their season rushing averages, but Army will have to step up like it did last season when Navy only had 112 yards on 26 carries. In last year’s game, the Army defense only faced 36 offensive snaps against. Army ran 74 plays. Keep that in mind as you look at the numbers.
It feels like it has been an odd year for Navy, and not just because it ends in 7. The Midshipmen have dealt with injuries at the quarterback position again, as Zach Abey has been in and out of the dark room with some concussion concerns. He’s still the leading rusher with 1,322 yards on 278 attempts with 14 touchdowns. He also has a 7/7 TD/INT ratio with 803 yards on just 30 completions out of 70 attempts. Navy seemed to do better with Malcolm Perry just running as quarterback. He has 8.9 yards per carry. It has been a tough year for Navy, with Ken Niumatalolo’s name brought up for some job openings and with offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper tending to some personal things with his family and his son’s illness. This is the lowest rushing output for Navy since 2013 and lowest scoring output since 2012. Fast reads are the most important thing for quarterbacks in this offense and maybe Abey, who was thrust into starting duty late last year, just needed a little more seasoning. Unless Navy wins out, this will be the first year without at least eight wins since 2011 and just the second in Niumatalolo’s tenure in Annapolis.
The offense is a worry, but the offense does what it does and maybe teams have just adjusted in the AAC. Keep in mind that Navy joined a conference for the first time in 2015, so teams have seen this triple-option with more regularity now. Defensively, the change to the AAC hurts. Navy allowed 6.3 yards per play last season and has allowed 6.5 yards per play this season. We expected the defense to regress and it did. From 2015 to 2016, Navy allowed 0.6 more yards per play and nearly 10 more points per game. This season, the defense has faltered once again. Navy is 122nd against the pass in terms of yards per attempt allowed. Navy is slightly better against the run than Army, with 4.6 yards per carry allowed, which is the most important part of this battle. Army doesn’t throw much and won’t change here. Navy couldn’t get off the field last year, as Army had 70 rushing attempts to Navy’s 26. That needs to change this season.
Free College Football Pick: Army Black Knights +3.5
My number on this game Navy -1, so there is some value on the road dog above the key number. The stronger play here is likely the under, however, with recent total scores of 38, 38, 27, 41, 30, 48, 48, 20, 34, 41, and 40 dating back to 2006. This is one of the best Army teams that we have seen in quite some time. It’s hard to tell whether Navy is down or because of the stiffer level of competition in the AAC, but they seem vulnerable again this season.