Army-Navy: What to expect when each team has the ball
5,489 days. That is the time that has passed since Army last beat Navy in the annual Army-Navy game. The Black Knights will have a good chance on Saturday against the decimated Midshipmen to get their first win in the series since December 1, 2001 — or seven days prior to Eric Crouch edging out Rex Grossman for the Heisman Trophy.
As usual, the two teams’ style is extremely similar and the game could come down to individual performances and some key plays. So let’s take a look at who can decide the matchup on each side of the football.
When Navy has the ball
All eyes will be on quarterback Zach Abey who is playing in place of Will Worth who got injured in the AAC Championship Game against Temple. While Worth was undoubtedly Navy’s best player this season, Abey flashed talent on the ground in the limited time he played against the Owls last week. The quarterback obviously has a large responsibility when it comes to distributing the ball in Navy’s triple option-based offense. Navy use triple option on 47.1 percent of their run plays, the third highest rate in college football. The scheme plays an enormous part in Navy averaging 3.5 yards before contact on runs, meaning that they can basically gain a first down on three runs without making any defenders miss or dragging them for yards.
While passing was never a strength of the Navy offense, based on Abey’s limited snaps against Temple, it seems like the unit took a big step back with Worth going down. With Temple leading, the Midshipmen were forced to pass and Abey turned the ball over twice on 13 attempts and completed only three of his nine attempts targeted 10 or more yards beyond the line of scrimmage. Naturally, Navy will need to avoid obvious passing situations, especially since Abey did not complete a pass on any of his nine dropbacks under pressure against Temple and had a passer rating of 0.0 on these plays.
Army’s run defense will be heavily tested on Saturday, but fortunately for the Black Knights, they have one of the best linebacker corps outside the Power-5 conferences. Furthermore, linebacker Andrew King graded in the Top 10 among all linebackers this season and proved his versatility by contributing in all three aspects of the defense. King has only seven missed tackles to his 42 defensive stops, has recorded 14 total pressures, including three sacks, and has allowed only 60 yards in coverage.
Linebackers Jeremy Timpf and Kenneth Brinson both grade well next to King and round out a linebacker group that is stout against the run. However, the Black Knights are seeing mixed results when it comes to defending the pass. In terms of pass rush, Army generates pressure on less than 30 percent of plays when it is rushing with five or less defenders, which is a relatively low rate. On the other hand however, the defense is playing well in coverage and has allowed the same number of touchdowns as many interceptions it recorded. Furthermore, they excel at defending the go route as they allow a completion percentage of 20.5 percent and a passer rating of 59.7 on these plays.
When Army has the ball
The Black Knights’ offense relies on the triple option at least as much as Navy’s, and actually Army runs the triple option most frequently in the nation, as 56.4 percent of their run plays is a triple option run. As a result, quarterback Ahmad Bradshaw leads the Black Knights in carries with 157 runs, but running back Andy Davidson is right behind him with 150. Similarly to Navy, the scheme provides a big boost for the running game as Bradshaw and Davidson average 2.1 yards before contact. Despite their relative success on the ground, the two players combined to fumble the football 11 times this season.
Army’s struggles in the passing game present another similarity to the Midshipmen as Bradshaw has a (NFL) passer rating of 44.6 this season. Furthermore, he managed to complete only 42.9 percent of his attempts and had his worst game against North Texas when he completed only 33.3 percent of his passes and turned the ball over four time through the air.
However, Army might find some success on Saturday through the passing game since Navy’s pass defense has had issues this season. The Midshipmen’s pass rush does not get close to the opposing quarterbacks often as they generate pressure on only 20.7 percent of plays when they send four rushers. Furthermore, opposing teams have thrown for 25 touchdowns while Navy has picked off only six passes and their top defensive backs all have allowed passer ratings above 100 in coverage.
The unit can make up for its deficiencies in pass defense by playing well against the run. While they did allow 176.2 rushing yards per game, their defensive line graded considerably well against in run defense. As a result, defensive linemen Jarvis Polu, Amos Mason and Patrick Forrestal all have more than 15 defensive stops this season. However, Navy might have some issues when running backs get to the second level as their linebackers have struggled to come off blocks so far this season.
Matchup to watch
Navy runners versus Army’s linebackers
Shawn White, Chris High, Dishan Romine and Calvin Cass Jr. are all expected to see bigger roles for Navy in the absence of Will Worth and Toneo Gulley on Saturday. And while Navy’s scheme creates yards before contact they will need to step up and gain extra yards with their speed and elusiveness.
However, they will be challenged to run on the edges against the quick Army linebackers. Also, the Midshipmen will be missing the two players who broke the most tackles on their team and it is to be seen who can step up and make Black Knights defenders miss because an elusive Navy back can be a difference maker in this game. The most likely candidate for this at this point is senior slot back Dishan Romine who carried the football 44 times this season, broke seven tackles and averaged 2.7 yards after contact.
Prediction: Army 17, Navy 16