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Sons of Mars and Thunder: Army at Penn State

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Army vs. Penn State Preview

Danny Wild-USA TODAY Sports

Man the ramparts and load an extra magazine, Nits. Army is invading your precious valley. Fresh off a barn-burner against Eastern Michigan in which the Black Knights put up 58 points to earn their first W of the year, Army heads to Beaver Stadium for the first game against a Big Ten team since defeating Northwestern in 2011. As Army works to rebuild its program and use the team as an exposure tool for the Academy, the Black Knights will venture more and more into B1G country. Army added a road trip to Columbus to the 2017 schedule last August. They play Rutgers a lot, too, though that's "essentially" an Ivy League matchup.

For most folks, the Army team is a bit of an unknown quantity. Until CBS Sports picked up the service academies two years ago, few saw Army play anyone except Navy on television. The times are changing, though. Football is the so-called front porch of the nation's colleges, and Army is keen to use that cultural fact to its advantage. While the team certainly isn't there yet, the effort shows on the schedules. In the next three years, Army will face an increasing cast of P5 opponents, including Duke, Wake Forest, Notre Dame, Ohio State, and Rutgers. Since you'll likely see more and more of the team from West Point, it's worth looking under the hood of the Army squad before tomorrow's kickoff.

The Past

While this showdown seems new to most of us, this is actually the 26th matchup between the hallowed Black Knights of the Hudson and the Nittany Lions. Army and Penn State last locked horns in 1979. That game saw Penn State cap a nine-game series win streak with a 24-3 victory over Lou Saban's Army team. On the whole, the slate tilts 13-10-2 in Penn State's favor. Army's last victory against PSU came in 1966 by an 11-0 margin. Since that time, the programs have been complete opposites. PSU tallied bowl victories and #1 rankings. Army tallied losing seasons and frustration. It's been a long 35 years for Army fans, including an NCAA-record 0-13 season in 2003. Since 1979, Penn State has had three coaches in total. Army's on their third coach since 2006, and their ninth since last facing PSU.

The Present

The current iteration of Army football is a shadow of the days that spawned the Black Knights of the Hudson moniker--a nickname that supplanted Cadets as the official Army sports name in 1999. This past off-season saw a total rebranding of Army athletics in conjunction with major changes to the athletic department. The much-maligned and little-loved Speed A and caped knight were abandoned in favor of a new monochromatic gold scheme. The logo is a stylized adaptation of the Academy crest worn by all cadets, and has generally been very well received among the deeply traditional fanbase. The helmet is that of Athena, who serves as the goddess of both wisdom and military strategy (and about a dozen other things).

Where many feel the administration dropped the ball is the name. Fans and graduates far and wide yearn for a return to the Cadets, feeling that Black Knights is not only a breach of tradition, but is too deeply linked to the worst era of Army football. Moreover, the leadership acquiesced to input from a history professor about branding and has elected to compete not as Army but as Army West Point. That went over like a lead balloon, and even the broadcast media is rapidly abandoning its use.

Probably the best change to come out of the rebranding is the abandonment of the terrible camouflage and gimmick uniforms in favor of a simple, cohesive, attractive uniform scheme. Distinctive touches like an American flag on the right sleeve and the player's name in small print on the right chest of the jersey pay homage to the combat uniforms of the Army itself. Moreover, Army changes the decal on the back of the helmet each week to represent a different unit in the active duty force. During tomorrow's game, look for the screaming eagle patch of the 101st Airborne in Beaver Stadium.

The Team

Like our sister academies, Army runs the triple option. The offense is predicated on bruising inside fullback dives out of Matt Giachinta and Jordan Kemper, with Ahmad Bradshaw pulling the ball based on his reads. There's little in the way of deviation or trickeration out of this Army team, though Bradshaw has shown the ability to throw a good downfield strike. Mostly Army looks to establish respect for the inside run and, once the outside LB or DE starts biting inside early, to make hay on the edges. Some like to dismiss the option as simple to defend based on "good, assignment football." Yet a quality modern triple option is predicated on making defenses work `shorthanded on the play side and forcing defenders to tackle in space. As such, even the most disciplined defenses can get gashed for big yardage.

Army currently boasts a 1-3 record, yet all three losses came by a combined 10 points. The Black Knights are averaging 5.9 yards per attempt this season, and 92 yards passing per game. This is an offense that can score points when it's firing on all cylinders, but that happens less often than most fans would like.

Ten Things You Need to Know

For those PSU fans born too late to remember the heyday of Army football (or any of the two dozen games these two programs have played) there's probably a lot you don't know about Army Football, West Point, or both. So on the eve of your surprise pantsing by the Sons of Slum and Gravy, let me spool you up on the particulars of football at the rockbound highland home.

1. Michie Stadium is quite possibly the most beautiful football venue in America. You don't have to take my word for it. Army's home stadium is consistently ranked among the most picturesque venues to take in a game. Sadly, this game will be in Happy Valley instead of the Hudson Valley, but those within driving distance shouldn't miss the chance to visit for a fall game and take in a likely victory for your own team (unless you're Rutgers, 'cause Army's gonna ruin your season to the Nth degree). Be sure to get there early to enjoy all the splendor of the human zoo. Game days include a double-regimental review--a parade featuring two of the four cadet regiments--in honor of the Army team's opponent.

2. We don't have alumni. We have Old Grads. The day a young man or woman graduates and becomes a member of the Long Gray Line, he or she achieves the hallowed status of Old Grad. Old Grads are like your alumni, but significantly more insane. Returning to USMA or any Army game brings out a level of mischief generally not seen in polite college football society. The capstone of this year's chicanery came when a Class of 1965 grad who was at USMA for his 50th reunion donned a cadet uniform and led a cadet company in a parade. When you live for four years under the heel of authority, you spend a lifetime getting back at The Man.

3. We tailgate differently. Since cadets are all members of the US Army and game attendance is considered their place of duty, drinking prior to kickoff is strictly prohibited. That means the tailgate scene beforehand consists mostly of crazed old grads downing scotch and chortling over war stories great and small. The tailgate scene after the final gun sounds looks like the exodus from Egypt, with cadets shedding uniforms and decorum in a race to bad decisions. Hide the young ladies and the flagons of ale. You've been warned.

4. The Army team is not good. This isn't news to anyone, but football blog, et cetera. Seemed to bear mentioning at some point.

5. Army is poised to get much, much better. Obviously Army's been on quite a long walk in the wilderness. We dabbled in conferential relations, we tried the spread, we hired a bunch of balloonhead coaches, blah blah blah. I've prattled about this in the past. Jeff Monken is in year two of what will likely be a five-year rebuilding effort. Expectations remain low now and the wins are infrequent, but his recruiting is strong. I guess Army and the Nits have that in common.

6. Win or lose, we all sing the alma mater. Not just a few of us. All of us. It's a bit of a funeral dirge, but cheerful exuberance isn't our bailiwick.

7. We have more nicknames for one bad team than anyone else (probably). The Sons of Slum and Gravy. The Sons of Mars and Thunder. The Army Team. The Pride and Dream. The list goes on. You've probably caught on to the fact that we cling to tradition, and as such our songs and cheers are old and strange. On the upside, it's a great chance to try out your best old-timey voice, see? These tunes are the cat's pyjamas!

8. Got a class ring? You're welcome. We invented them. Every year, the senior class receives their class rings--a tradition that originated at West Point in 1835. Modern class rings include the melted gold of rings donated by the families of deceased graduates, thus perpetuating the Long Gray Line.

9. We have a few notable alumni. A president or two. Some repeat World War champions. Some Heisman winners. Coach K. Medal of Honor winners. Astronauts. And some guy named Custer.

10. Your team can beat the Army team. Handily. Easily. With vigor and abandon. Your offense can hang half-a-hundred on the Black Knights. ou can make them the laughing stock of the stadium for 60 minutes. But you can't make them quit. Would life be easier if Army dropped to FCS? Or Division II? Of course. But that's not who we are. The Army team has been a woeful band, for sure. But one thing the Army isn't is a bunch of quitters. As it happens, you can stick us in some pretty situations and we'll keep on slugging, because that's what the nation expects. Americans, as Patton opined, love a fight. We're born fighters. And this team represents an Army of Americans, if only in spirit currently.

The victories will come. Maybe not today in Happy Valley. Maybe not next week. Maybe not any time soon. But they will. Either way...we're still coming to play. Give us your best shot.