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Beyond the Empire: Previewing Army Football with Against All Enemies

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Kaylah Jackson and GoForThree take us through one of the most successful Army seasons in history, talk about FBS independence and the program Jeff Monken has built, and preview the Black Knights’ 2019 season and matchup with Michigan.

NCAA Football: Army at Navy Danny Wild-USA TODAY Sports

On September 22, 2018, chyrons and scoreboards across the country lit up with the news that 1-2 Army, playing in the challenging environs of Norman’s Memorial Stadium, had taken the #5 Oklahoma Sooners to overtime, tied at 21 apiece.

A few minutes later, following a Kyler Murray touchdown pass to CeeDee Lamb, Army’s fourth-down desperation heave was intercepted, and the Sooners escaped with a home win.

Army hasn’t lost since, and now they’ll try to do the same to Michigan in 2019.

As part of our Beyond the Empire series, we’re previewing each conference outside the Big Ten with the SBNation writers from across our network. In lieu of a preview for all the independents at once, we’ll check in on Army with a couple writers who follow and root for the Black Knights.

Today we’re joined by Kaylah Jackson, a writer (and a Medill alumna!) for Against All Enemies, SBNation’s Service Academy blog. Follow her @kaylahchanel, and check out Against All Enemies’ website, their twitter @AAE_SBN, and their excellent podcast in the Vox Podcast Network.

Our second guest is no stranger to the OTE faithful: GoForThree, our Buckeye writer, expat in London, and Army graduate extraordinaire. Follow him @GoForThree — he’ll be the one making you spit with rage in Sunday Morning Coming Down following every college football weekend.

Army Fandom and 2018 Season Recap

OTE: WHAT a 2018 for Army. Jeff Monken and the Sons of Slum and Gravy rode the traditional Army offense to a wins record 11-2 with losses only to Duke and in overtime at #5 Oklahoma, then roared to a finish capped off by a Commander in Chief Trophy win over Navy. And, less importantly, the cherry on top of a 70-14 OBLITERATION of the Houston Cougars in Armed Forces Bowl.

What’s it like—right now—to be an Army football fan?

Kaylah Jackson: It’s awesome! For Army fans, especially long-standing Black Knights fans, they’re holding on to 2018 success. It’s been really special to not only watch the growth of this team but to see their success talked about nationally.

The understanding of service academy athletics for many can be a point of confusion for a lot of college football fans right because these athletes are unique in that they have this mission as football players and another as cadets. But it’s great for Army to get this type of visibility, to see them ranked nationally and have players receive accolades is really awesome. It’s s only pumped us up going into this upcoming season.

GoForThree: The thing about being an Army football fan now is that it really requires some deep context. Everyone remembers our walk in the wilderness with 14 years of defeat at the hands of Navy. But it’s more than that. In 1999, Army went through a “re-branding” that saw us ditch the old Kicking Mule logo and adopt a new name. Most people don’t realize that Army was never actually known as the “Black Knights” in an official capacity prior to the re-branding. We were always the Cadets, with “Black Knights of the Hudson” as a handy sobriquet granted by a newspaperman in the 1940s.

With the re-brand came the cartoonish “Speed A” logo that so typified the design aesthetics of the time. At the very same time, Todd Berry came to the shores of Lusk Reservoir and absolutely destroyed the Army football brand. The triple option was abandoned in favor of a horrible attempt at some pass-heavy/pro-style amalgamation. It was a disaster. Berry was fired in 2003 after an 0-6 start, with the team going on to set an NCAA record of 13 losses in one season. That was my senior year…watching our team pitch a baker’s dozen of disasters. I witnessed five victories in four years. Five wins and forty-two losses.

All that is to say that the current iteration of Army football—or “Army West Point” as they’re trying to brand it now—is the end of a very long, lonely road of heartbreak. There’s a lot of blame to go around. The academy went through a series of leaders who wanted to downplay the role of athletics as the wars ramped up. Many saw winning on the football field as wholly divorced from the mission of the academy. Only under the leadership of former football player Lieutenant General Bob Caslen did the program finally return to glory.

I won’t bore you with the structural changes behind the scenes, but suffice it to say Jeff Monken is the absolute best we could have hoped for. In so many ways. I thought he was the right choice in 2014 and said so on my former eponymous blog. Many fans lost faith when he didn’t turn Army into a powerhouse in the first two seasons.

Long story short…it feels pretty damn good to be an Army football fan right now. And it was a long time coming. Like Drake said: “Started from the bottom now we here.”

OTE: With yet another season behind them in which Army showed they could not only run with the big boys but also blow out legitimate G5 competition—a 42-13 pasting of Buffalo AT Buffalo and the aforementioned 70-14 caning of Houston—should the Knights be considering a do-over with conference football if the American comes knocking? Or, with UConn and UMass independent in the northeast, should Army continue its unique approach to FBS football?

KJ: We actually talked a bit about this in our last podcast episode, one of three which focused on the strength of each service academy’s schedule.

A big criticism of Army football is the caliber of schools in their schedule. What we’ve seen in recent years is having one or two Top 20 ranked teams on the ballot and the remainder of the opponents being FCS teams who frankly, fare quite easily up against the Black Knights. I think, and this is me speculating what I observe of a lot of Army fans, that if we want to continue elevating this team into the national conversation about college football then we’re going to want to see a stronger schedule.

Once upon a time, Army was part of Conference-USA, but that didn’t bode well for them. The seven years they were apart of the conference Army only won 13 games. Granted, they shuffled through various coaches and Jeff Monken has brought Army into a new era but, I don’t personally see a conference move in the near future.

Aside from the success we’ve seen, most importantly it would dissolve the current scheduling of Army-Navy game. Think about it — it’s the only game on that day and last year, it fell at the 6th most-watched game behind several SEC championships last year. That possibility alone, the exclusivity of that game is not something alumni, fans, or the network wants to gamble on losing.

GF3: Absolutely not. One other mistake that coincided with Todd Berry and the rebrand was Conference USA affiliation. A conference does nothing for Army except a bowl tie-in. Fortunately, Army has a built-in bowl game every year against Navy.

Army is a national brand and being able to set up a slate of nationwide competition is a huge advantage for America’s senior service academy.

OTE: Kaylah, you hosted a podcast recently with Army HC Jeff Monken. Talk a little about what that experience was like, and what he has meant to the greater Army community.

KJ: It was awesome! You watch his media interviews, see how he interacts with players and them getting a chance to actually speak with him, you can tell he’s passionate about those guys. You can tell yes, he’s passionate about winning but also about building that team cohesion and brotherhood that’s really unique to service academy athletics.

The great thing about SA football is that these schools extend beyond just alumni. We like to say they’re “America’s teams” right? Because it’s true. I mean even for the Against All Enemies team, I’m rooting for Army, not as a West Point grad but because the graduates and soon-to-be grads are people who I could run into one day, men and women who will from an even larger standpoint, serve alongside me in the future.

That’s what makes Army football and service academy football different. Jeff Monken really embodies the heart of that mission and fans can see that transparency on and off the field.

GF3: I didn’t host a podcast.

But, as I said above, Monken has been everything we could’ve hoped for. He’s not just a winning coach. He exudes the persona of an Army coach. Reserved and thoughtful, yet also a ball of energy. He outruns his own players to the sideline.

But the biggest aspect has been the “F You, Stop Us” mentality of going for it on 4th down. For years, 4th down meant just another sad punt by a cautious coach. Now we’ve got a guy who lives and breathes the idea of win-or-die-trying—an idea that should absolute seep into every facet of life at West Point. Nothing fires me up like seeing Jeff Monken go for it on his own 40. Even if it doesn’t work it sends one very clear message: we’re not afraid of you.

Poll

Should Army remain an FBS independent?

This poll is closed

  • 85%
    Yes
    (158 votes)
  • 13%
    No
    (25 votes)
  • 0%
    Other (give us your hybrid plan in the comments)
    (1 vote)
184 votes total Vote Now

2019 Army Football Preview

OTE: We’ll all miss human steamroller of an FB Darnell Woolfolk, but Kelvin Hopkins Jr. (1040 rushing yards, 5.07 ypc) returns for the Black Knights, and with him are an experienced offensive line, the Woolfolkian FB Connor Slomka (6’, 240#), and do-it-all back and leading receiver Kell Walker (320 rush yards, 170 rec. yards).

Couple that with the Knights’ love of going for it on fourth down and their ability to get those first downs, could they put a scare in—or even knock off—Michigan? The loss of so many defensive starters and six of their front seven, including WILL linebacker James Nachtigal (77 tackles), has to be concerning, though.

KJ: Definitely, I think it would be ingenuine for any Army fan to say they aren’t concerned. In 2018, Army led nationally in rushing offense and that was in huge part to Darnell Woolfolk, James Nachtigal, Jordan Asberry, Kenneth Brison and several others holding that line.

I think on defense we’re once again going to see Cole Christiansen, Elijah Riley (both named team captains this year), along with Jaylon McClinton continue to perform while also developing a lot of the younger guys. Of course in an ideal world we want that to be immediate, right, to fills those holes we lost but many of the players along with Jeff Monken has said time and time again—this is a different team, they’re not going into this season riding on that high of 2018. I think will see the fruits of that this year.

GF3: There’s certainly cause for concern on both sides of the ball, but that’s the nature of football in general. One thing that gives me confidence is that Monken has built a ton of depth on both sides of the ball. Woolfolk was the hitter last year for sure, but departed senior Andy Davidson and the aforementioned Slomka both produced the same or better YPC. Slomka is no slouch and the beauty of the fullback position is that you only need two skills to be a success in the Army offense: hold onto the ball and be a hard-nosed SOB. When Hopkins gives them the ball, it’s because there are yards to be had.

Speaking of which, the return of Hopkins is the biggest plus. In a triple-option/veer offense, the QB is everything. We saw how Army finally became an offensive machine with the arrival of Bradshaw and his running abilities. Hopkins is arguably and equal runner but he can throw the ball nicely, too. He provides the magic that makes the whole show work.

Defense is the biggest worry. Losing Nachtigal is huge, and one of the keys to winning for Army is the defense. That probably sounds quite pedestrian, but with an offense that grinds out yards and clock time, it’s imperative to force the opponent to squander one of their possessions. That’s how you get a team like OU on the ropes. One or two good stops and suddenly the basketball-on-grass routine that the entire Pac-12 and Big XII are built on falls apart. Cole Christiansen is back in the middle, and he will hopefully anchor the linebacking corps that produced so much last year.

OTE: That schedule sets up NICELY for Army, which will play a 13-game slate in 2019, using the NCAA’s exemption for scheduling Hawaii. The Black Knights welcome Rice, Tulane, San Jose State, and UMass to Michie Stadium, and while road games with Western Kentucky, Air Force, and Hawaii will be tricky, this could be another 10-win Army squad that’s made plenty of noise in preseason polls.

Of course, none of that matters if the Black Knights lose to Navy. But how should Army fare, overall, in 2019?

KJ: Well, they’re not going to lose against Navy so full stop there, the Commander-in-Chief’s trophy is staying on the Hudson for sure. But, I really think Army is gonna pull out another double-digit victory by the end of this season.

I think having Michigan go in week two will definitely pose a challenge, and if you watched this past weekend’s Arizona-Hawaii match-up, Cole McDonald is definitely gonna have something for the Black Knights as we come to the end of the season, but I have faith in them.

GF3: I see this as probably a 10-4 season with a bowl win, so not a double-digit regular season campaign. But really, that’s an incredible output for a team with the structural challenges of Army.

Army Black Knights at #7 Michigan Wolverines

Saturday, September 9 | 11am CT | FOX

OTE: Last but not least: Tell us how Army fares against Michigan.

KJ: The challenge of Michigan is no secret. Along with being 2nd in Big 10 East, Michigan was 7-0 at home, which I think will be a big point of contention.

Playing in The Big House during week two will keep the Black Knights on their toes. Army is looking at a team that right now is boasting the versatility of two quarterbacks in Shea Patterson and Dylan McCaffery. While Michigan has yet to play two QBs under Harbaugh, he hasn’t ruled out playing both guys this season.

I’ve mentioned this before in looking at the possibility of Army getting complacent and developing that secondary QB, which I definitely think was a focus of camp this past summer. Thanks to skills of Kelvin Hopkins Jr., Army had its first 1,000-yard passing season since 2007 which is awesome but in that regard, Army is doing what Michigan has been doing for quite some time now. Jeff Monken is gonna play their game which is really what Army does best. They hold on to the ball and make those 3rd and 4th down conversions.

We’re going to see a new offense from the Wolverines though under Josh Gattis who was with Alabama previously and helped their offense reach 6th nationally and if Michigan forces Army to run outside of what’s the norm or comfortable for them--it could pose problems.

What you don’t want to see is Army playing catch up too late in the second half and I think it will be interesting to see if and what kind of adjustments the team makes in Ann Arbor.

GF3: I think Army loses a close one, much like OU last year. It’ll be lot of ball control offense, but Michigan probably has the playmakers to beat Army’s secondary through the air. I’d bet that Michigan will have to rely on the passing game to do it. Also, Fuck Michigan.


That’s it! My thanks to Kaylah Jackson and GoForThree for taking the time to a talk Army football with us! Follow her @kaylahchanel and him @GoForThree, check out Against All Enemies @AAE_SBN and in the Vox Podcast Network (they’re doing a live show on Friday in Annapolis!), and let us know your pick for Army-Michigan in the poll and comments!

Poll

How does Army do against Michigan?

This poll is closed

  • 52%
    They lose, but I want them to win.
    (116 votes)
  • 7%
    They lose, and I am a fan who loves rooting against Army.
    (17 votes)
  • 36%
    They win! Hooray!
    (81 votes)
  • 2%
    They win, and as a Michigan/Navy fan I am despondent.
    (6 votes)
220 votes total Vote Now