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Beyond the Empire 2015 Declares Independence Again

And this time, we've got an Army.

Jeff Monken leads Year Two of the rebuilding process at West Point.
Jeff Monken leads Year Two of the rebuilding process at West Point.
Danny Wild-USA TODAY Sports

Did you know that two Big Ten teams play Army this year? That's right, you didn't. With both Penn State and Rutgers set to take on the Black Knights in 2015 (and the Scarlet Knights even head up the Hudson to Michie Stadium), we thought we'd look for an Army expert or two to help us break down Army football as it rebuilds under former Georgia Southern coach Jeff Monken.

Previously in Beyond the Empire:

Jesse talks ESS EEE CEE with TeamSpeedKills.

Vanquish the Foe tells us why BYU will beat Nebraska and Michigan.


1. Expectations: We're only a year into the Jeff Monken Experience, and while an inaugural 4-8 campaign was ugly (a loss at Yale, albeit a close loss) at times, a close loss against Wake Forest and a manageable schedule suggests the Black Knights could find their way to a bowl again. You've written on expectations for Army extensively, but boil it down for us: What are the expectations and timeline afforded Monken to rebuild Army?

Dan Heaning: While that loss to Yale was close, Army got dominated. Yale moved the ball at will against the Black Knights. They didn't even deserve to lose in overtime. Turnovers kept Army in that game.

More to the point, the powers-that-be gave Rich Ellerson five years. Mind you he got them to a bowl victory and 12 wins in his first two campaigns, but he never beat Navy. How Monken fares against the Middies will also be vital to his tenure.

As for expectations, Army wants to win. They want to beat Air Force and Navy, and get themselves to a bowl. They try to carry themselves to the standards of their rivals.

But they are most certainly not there yet. A more grounded approach should just be basic improvement. Do better than last year. That didn't happen much under Ellerson. Monken needs to fix that.

With that said, they went 4-8 last season so a five or six win season should be on their radar. But anything more than that is a pipe dream.

That should happen too. They have two FCS teams on their schedule, a home game against Tulane (who never, ever travel well), and road games against UCONN and Eastern Michigan. At minimum, Army should expect themselves to win those games because those are very winnable games.

If Monken can just show he's got the program on the right track, they'll give him some rope. Though beating Air Force or, especially, Navy will make that rope even longer.

GoForThree: Of course there's no explicit timeline. There never is for a new coach. In the very vocal and active alumni circles (no one but alumni and a few random folks care about Army) there was early talk of years. Three years was a time horizon that most found reasonable.

That being said, cooler heads always prevail before the cold, stark realities of a losing season set in. As soon as things got rough, the predictable wails of "more of the same waah waah waah" started in earnst. I firmly believe Monken will need three to four years to produce long term, concrete results. By that I mean he needs time for his first real, full crop of recruits--who started at USMA Prep School just this year--to be Cows (juniors) before we really see what his program can be. USMA is a beast unlike any other, though the other SAs are admittedly close analogs. Young men who go there follow the most rigorous path of the three academies and there is no real opportunity to redshirt. If Wisconsin thinks academics hold them back on recruiting, they'd curl up and cry to see what Monken faces.

Many alumni don't follow the nuts and bolts closely enough to know just how bare Rich Ellerson left the cupboard, especially on defense. In many ways, Monken is rebuilding a house that was mostly burned down, and what didn't burn was water-logged and collapsing. My personal belief is that he'll get at least as long as Ellerson got. Monken is from a much better coaching tree, and for once the grumbling Old Grads are realizing en masse the magnitude of the task he faces.

2. With the ball: It looked like the Black Knights doubled down (is such a thing possible?) on the run in 2014, running it even more than in 2014 (with pass attempts dropping from 164 to 114). With the loss of leading rusher Larry Dixon and QB Angel Santiago, is Army reloading for its usual run-heavy attack behind an experienced offensive line, or will we see the Black Knights employ what we in B1G country like to call the "air handoff" [the pass]? Who should we be looking out for?

DH: Army has a lot of new starters coming in for key positions. They'll likely have a new quarterback in Ahmad Bradshaw as A.J. Schurr's time has passed plus he's coming off an injury.

All of their slotbacks and fullbacks will be new starters as well. To make matters worse, presumed starting slotbacks John Trainor and Joe Walker are coming off injuries.

WR Edgar Poe is one of the few returning starters for the Army offense so utilizing him more would be a good idea. But with Bradshaw at the helm, he has to prove he's a steady passer first before getting Poe more touches.

TE Kelvin White is also another intriguing option for the pass game. White's a former quarterback converted to the tight end position, he possesses the tools to make some big plays. He and Poe gives Army some options to throw it a bit more this season, but it all depends on how Bradshaw looks in the pass game.

GF3: With the expectation that Firstie (senior) QB A.J. Schurr would start for Army dashed by off-season surgery, the passing game is an even bigger question mark. I don't say that lightly, as even on his best days, Schurr makes Joel Stave with the yips look like Joe Montana in his prime. Yes, he's that bad as a thrower. It's hard to hope for much more in terms of throwing out of his replacement, Yearling (sophomore) Ahmad Bradshaw. He's straight out of B1G country, having been raised on Chicago's south side, and is touted as a bruising runner.

While one can't have much hope for a QB described as run-first in a triple option scheme to raise the passing bar at Army, that might not be a bad thing. Bear in mind that Jeff Monken's Georgia Southern team beat Florida in The Swamp without completing a pass [they were 0-3 passing]. I don't see Monken trying to make Army into a throwing team. As Woody Hayes quipped, three things can happen on a forward pass and two of them are bad. Passing attempts for the Pride & Dream are what trick plays are to the rank and file of D1 football: to be used sparingly and to great surprise effect. I didn't think we'd throw much with Schurr under center. Now, I'd be surprised to see more than 5 attempts per game.

The option is the bread and butter, and like all good triple options, the QB is the prime threat. Fullback Matt Giachinta is likely to be short yardage bruiser inside, and the new starters at the speed back position should make a name for themselves on the option pitch. Hopefully the CBS announcers have to say the name St. Hilaire often enough to get it right.

3. Without the ball: So, um, losing three starters off the line and two more in the linebacking corps looks bad. Will the Black Knights take a step back in 2015, or does Jay Bateman have an ace up his sleeve? It looks like Army is trying to solidify a defensive identity around exciting players like LBs Jeremy Timpf (14.5 TFL) and Andrew King (8.0 TFL, 5.0 sacks), but what will that identity be? Can Army improve into a better bend-don't-break defense?

DH: Jeff Monken has said Timpf and King are the basis of the entire defense. He needs them to be as Army's defense was putrid last year and looks like it will be again.

A serious injury to Josh Jenkins really puts the secondary in a bind. They'll have to rely on Chris Carnegie even more until Jenkins gets back, if he does at all. The head injury he suffered could be season-ending. Even if he does return, one has to wonder if Jenkins will be able play the position without the risk of re-injuring himself and possibly doing more damage to his body. The kid has a career in the military to think about, after all.

The inexperienced line is going to absolutely kill this defense. The worst thing a service academy team can do is let the opposition give them a taste of their own medicine.

The Black Knights gave up about 193 rushing yards per game last season making them 94th in the country. They were 113th in yards allowed per rush as well. Army needs to keep the ball out of the opponent's hands, but if they can't stop the rush they'll needs to score 40 to 50 points again like under the Ellerson regime.

The secondary was supposed to be the strength of the team and the injury to Jenkins may be too much for this fragile defense to overcome.

GF3: Can they improve? You're begging me to say "nowhere to go but up." If you can't keep Yale's undersized/high-motor runner Tyler Varga out of the endzone, who are you stopping? There are a few returning stars. Jeremy Timpf, as you mentioned, is poised to continue his solid play. CB Josh Jenkins played very well last year. I think he intercepted more passes in one game than I think I saw Army snag in four years. That being said, he is also suffering lasting concussive effects from a boneheaded off-season fight. He was listed to start this week, but now it appears he won't. If he doesn't return healthy, Army's defensive possessions will be a great time to grab a beer, and that's all the longer they'll last. #wisconsinscoredagain

4. Conference Chat: The CUSA experiment of 1998-2005 is behind the Black Knights (where Army's overall record bottomed out at 17-74), and Army is affiliated with the Patriot League in all other sports. If--and we're playing hypotheticals here--the Monken Era sees Army returning to bowl games, would the football program look to re-affiliate with an FBS conference? Is it a matter of preferring life as an independent (history and all), or has success been so fleeting for the Black Knights of the last two decades that worrying about being caught up in the rise of the Power-5 conferences is pointless?

DH: Absolutely not. The Cadets won't be joining a conference any time soon. The C-USA fiasco has scared off West Point from probably ever doing so. The great conference realignment freak out from years past is over and there isn't any pressure for Army to join a conference.

For the sake of argument, the American would love to have Army because then they'd get a bigger piece of the Army-Navy game pie. But such a proposition would lead to the game having to fall in line with the American conference schedule and take place before the AAC title game. Neither academy wants that.

Besides, Army would get throttled in the AAC. It's essentially the C-USA they left over 10 years ago with a few additions like UCF and Navy.

The only conferences it would make sense for Army to join would be the Sun Belt or MAC. That's purely competition-wise too. It makes no sense for Army to join either geographically speaking. But Army already schedules a good deal of MAC opponents and, at least, Buffalo's in the same state. At a scant 370 mile, six-hour drive away.

But any talk of Army looking to join a conference, turned around or not, isn't in the program's best interest. When the great conference re-alignment freakout happened, many programs panicked and joined conferences including Navy. Army looked at their potential FBS demise and didn't even blink.

If that didn't make them jump into bed with another conference, I really don't think anything will.

GF3: West Point is a rockbound fortress built upon 213 years of tradition unhampered by progress. We still wear worsted wool, for god's sake. The conference experiment never sat well with anyone. For one, it bucked said hallowed tradition. Old Grads are elephants: we're big, grumpy, and never ever forget. For that reason alone, I doubt you'll see Army in a conference again.

My personal feeling is that Navy will regret their conference deal soon enough. Add to that, it submarined some very traditional matchups (yes, Rutgers, we see you grinning) and made us play random nobodies we didn't give two rips about. Tulane? UAB? Rice? It was a terrible fit. Plus, as plebes, having to greet passing upperclassmen with "Beat University of Alabama Birmingham, sir!" was a cruel mouthful.

I think for a team with a rich graduate base and a nice TV deal, there's little reason to hitch the Army wagon to another conference. Certainly no P5 conference would want Army, nor would Army want the endless drubbing that would come with joining even a weak P5 like the ACC. Army is good as an independent. We like it that way.

5. Prediction: Looking forward to a matchup of colorful knights with Rutgers at Michie Stadium in late November, what about the Scarlet variety scares you? What do you think Army can exploit? Give us a prediction, if you'd like. We won't hold you to it, we swear (never mind our fingers crossed behind our backs).

DH: Army has two games that I've pretty much already etched into stone as losses and both come against the B1G.

Penn State will boat race them and it shouldn't be too much of an issue for Rutgers either.

Only the Scarlet Knights can beat the Scarlet Knights in this one. If they don't shoot themselves in the foot repeatedly with turnovers and penalties, they'll walk all over Army.

Why? Rutgers plays one of the best triple option defenses out of all of Army and Navy's typical opponents.

Look what they did to the Midshipmen last year. The only reason Navy were in that game was because of Keenan Reynolds' arm.

Army doesn't have that option in either Bradshaw or Schurr. So if Rutgers puts together a similar defensive effort this will be a breeze for them.

But if Rutgers is complacent and gets careless with the football along with Army playing a borderline perfect game then things can get hairy for the Scarlet Knights. But I haven't seen Army play anything close to a perfect game in some time.

Yeah, they gave Stanford a tiny scare in 2013, but that ended quickly in the second half.

Rutgers has an 80 percent chance of winning their contest against the Black Knights, according to ESPN's FPI. Army doesn't even have an 80 percent chance of beat Fordham.

Rutgers 31, Army 7

GF3: What scares me about Rutgers? Not much, because I've had all my shots. Kidding aside, nothing particularly scares me about them, aside from the old problem of the Scarlet Knights being bigger, stronger, deeper, and not having true academic standards to contend with. That's pretty much every week in Army football fandom. Save for the annual tilts against AF and those white-shoed shit-sippers in Annapolis, we're nearly always facing an uphill climb.

The thing Army can exploit is the same thing that always works (when it works) for the Sons of Slum & Gravy: tempo and execution. That's it. We can't push you around. We can't outrun you. We can't out-throw you. But tempo and relentless execution of a really well-designed triple option can wear down even the biggest teams. Ask Will Muschamp. He's got an L around his neck with a Jeff Monken autograph on it.


Thanks to both Dan Heaning and GoForThree for answering our burning Army questions! Check out Dan on Twitter and at Underdog Dynasty, and GoForThree is also a "writer" sometimes!