WEST POINT, N.Y. – Every possession is precious for Army.
Every play the Black Knights run is a well-choreographed, hidden-ball trick, designed to flummox and punish opponents who are almost always bigger, faster and stronger. But it’s not just defending Army’s triple-option that makes the Cadets so hard to handle.
The flex-bone offense has been a problem for defenses for years, whether it was being run by Georgia Southern or Georgia Tech, Army or Navy. Embedded into the attack is a strict adherence to one of football’s simplest truths: Your opponent cannot score without the ball.
In 2016, two years into Jeff Monken’s rebuild at Army, the coach added 21st century thinking to his old-school offense, using advanced analytics to guide his in-game decision making. When Army’s strategy is properly executed, the Black Knights are a model of efficiency.
“That’s what I love about how we do things,” said offensive coordinator Brent Davis, who has been working with Monken for 15 years. “If we follow our plan it doesn’t matter if we play Green Bay or the Pittsburgh Steelers or whoever. Tampa Bay with Ryan Fitzpatrick. We’ve got a plan that’s infallible.”
Army (2-2) will take that infallible plan to Buffalo (4-0) on Saturday.
Oklahoma is not quite an NFL team, but the talent and athleticism gap between Army, with its future soldiers, and the sixth-ranked Sooners, with their future NFL players, is vast. Yet there they were last Saturday, going to overtime, tied at 21.
Each offense had the ball just seven times (Oklahoma had 11 possessions the week before against Iowa State, another ball-control team – but nothing like Army) – but that’s where the similarity ends. The Black Knights had the ball for almost 45 minutes in regulation and finished with 87 plays to 40 for the Sooners, including each team’s one overtime possession. Army lost the game 28-21, but no one doubts the Black Knights stranglehold on possession nearly won them the game.
Army leads the nation in time of possession at almost 41 minutes per game after being fourth last season at 34:43 per game.
There is no secret to Army’s intent. The triple-option is a run-heavy offense. Passes are rare. That keeps the clock rolling. Monken and Davis will also instruct their quarterbacks to milk the 40-second play clock when the game clock is moving to burn even more time.
With so few opportunities, efficiency is paramount for the Black Knights. And last year they were as good offensively as the most dynamic, up-tempo spread offenses: According to Championship Analytics Inc., Army was third in the country out of 130 FBS teams, averaging 3.45 points per possession – on 8.3 drives per game, fewest in the nation. Only Oklahoma (3.64) and Central Florida (3.48) scored more points per possession. The Sooners averaged 12 possessions per game, 72nd best.
This season, Army has not been as efficient as it breaks in a new quarterback, replacing Ahmad Bradshaw (1,746 yards rushing) with Kelvin Hopkins. Army is averaging 2.66 points per possession, 53rd in the nation, on 9.5 drives per game, still the fewest.
The analytics come in mostly on fourth-down decisions. Army is among dozens of Division I football schools that subscribe to Championship Analytics, which provides weekly customized statistical breakdowns for each team based on opponent, with recommendations on when to kick, go on fourth down, go for 2 and more.
“I’m not a math guy,” Monken said. “I’m not an analytical thinker. I’m a PE major and proud of it.”
But when presented with the statistics that showed Army should be more aggressive on fourth down, Monken quickly embraced a by-the-numbers approach.
“It made way too much sense to me to argue with,” he said, adding. “I think it really fits what we do.”
Last week, Army converted 13 of 21 third downs into first downs, and four of five fourth downs against Oklahoma. Playing four-down offense while opponents mostly play three is another part of Army’s strategy to minimize an opponent’s talent advantages. It gives Davis more options when calling plays.
It’s not just math, it’s a mentality.
“It’s definitely a different mindset when you go out there and coach tells you you have four downs to get it rather than a different offense who says we got three downs and then the punt team’s coming out,” Hopkins said. “They kind of press the issue more on first and second down, where if we get a 3-yard gain on first down, we’re on schedule.”
Not so much on the other side of the field. Army defensive coordinator Jay Bateman said opposing offenses will sometimes get out of character knowing they might not get many opportunities.
“I think some offenses panic against us,” he said.
Sometimes that means taking chances, trying to make a big play. Or teams become too concerned about making a mistake and become overly conservative. And that can lead right into Army’s hands defensively. Bateman wants to play an aggressive style that loads the box to stop the run and brings lots of pressure on passing downs. It can be high risk and high reward. But Army doesn’t want its ball-control plan used against it.
Ideally, Army wants to face 40-50 plays per game. Low exposure means Bateman doesn’t have to show his hand. Army wants to save defensive wrinkles for the second half of games, making it difficult for opponents to adjust. Also, Bateman can play Army’s best players more often.
“So you’re backup D-tackle who everybody else is playing 20 plays,” Bateman said. “I’m playing him five. Some games none.”
It seems comically simple to say the defense’s goal is to get the ball back to the offense as quickly as possible, but Army has crafted a style that attempts to make that happen – even if it leads to lots of bench time.
“We’re stretching on the sideline all the time because our offense is on the field eight, nine minutes at a time,” linebacker Cole Christansen said. “That’s a long time in a football game with timeouts and commercials and stuff. It definitely gets a little boring sometimes, but that’s how we like it.”
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