We have another Army football Saturday at Michie Stadium as the Black Knights play Ball State before the arrival of two storms next week: one weather-related from the Caribbean, and the other a sibling rival from Colorado Springs, the Air Force Academy.
Yes for some West Point followers the Commanders-In-Chief game against Air Force in seven days is already top of mind but Army Coach Ellerson will keep his players focused on one objective and that is beating Ball State this week. "Why" as Army Head Coach Ellerson might say, "Because it is the only game we can play this week".
In any case this looks like another offensive shootout, a 45-40 type game. Both teams are good on offense and struggling at best on defense.
Coach Pete Lembo's Cardinals are averaging 480 yards and 34 points per game on offense. Their QB is Keith Wenning, has completed 64 percent of his passes for 2,236 yards and 15 touchdowns with six interceptions. Ball State's best running back is Jahwan Edwards, who averages just over 100 yards per game, 5.8 yards per carry and has eight touchdowns.
On defense, Ball State has given 476 yards per game, which is ten more yards per game than Army. They are giving up 35 points per game. The Cardinals have been beaten in the air this season and are giving up 290 yards per game.
At Rich Ellerson's Tuesday press conference I asked the coach about the prospect of a high-scoring shootout with Ball State:
"Given the nature of Ball State's offense and our defense, our offense is going to need to stay on the field and be productive. We said that last week and didn't pull it off. We weren't consistently good enough in the kicking game and on offense to win a game that was going to be like that. We know we're capable of that, but we need to take that step forward. Ball State is very dynamic on offense."
Army goes into the game owning the best running game in the country with 389 yards per game on the ground. Last week at Eastern Michigan, Army QB Trent Steelman ran for a career high 212 yards, which moved him into fourth place on Army's all-time list with 2,781 on his notable four year career. T
Later at the press conference I asked Coach Ellerson about the legacy that Trent Steelman is setting at Army as a four year starter and what needs to do to be successful down the stretch of the season:
"Obviously, you've heard me talk about him as a physically tough competitor. He's a team captain and what this season has served up, we need him to be all of that and have some of those games where he doesn't blink. He made some great plays on Saturday, but we need a couple more plays. We need to eliminate the negative plays. He nodded his head and knows it's on him to get it done."
Last week was the first full game Army played without its man in the middle of the defense, senior Nate Combs, who is out indefinitely with a shoulder injury. Freshman Brandon Jeffires stood out last week at the free safety position, making 14 tackles, but it is generally a problem when your safety is making that many plays. Sophomore Geoffrey Bacon at middle linebacker had 13 tackles last week and leads the team with 76 on the season. Another plebe, Alex Meier at the "Rover" position had eight tackles against the Eagles and has 35 on the season.
Army is depending on young defensive players to hold the line and give the team a chance to win. The Black Knights defensive lineup shows eight starters who are freshman or sophomores, two juniors and senior Zach Watts at the "quick" or outside linebacker position. I asked Coach Ellerson about the young players asked to step up and fill in for Nate Combs,
"We didn't ask quite as much from them as we might have asked from Nate. They did ok. Holt (Zalneraitis) is out again this week after being banged up a bit. We've expanded Zach Watts a little bit. He didn't play as well as he has played, so we have to be careful how we manage their job descriptions going forward."
One of the positives is the return to action of team captain Jarrett Mackey, who has moved from a down lineman spot to Combs position as the "bandit," in which the job is to fill the gaps and rush the passer. The coach felt that Mackey is making progress building strength and playing more each week as he recovers from his leg injury suffered in the opening game last year:
"The good news is Jarrett (Mackey) played his best game. He's certainly not back to where he was prior to his injury, but he's clearly much more comfortable playing. He's making some plays. Some of the responsibility for getting guys lined up and making those adjustments up front fell to him, and he handled it just right."
Okay, some of us are already looking forward to the Air Force game next week, but for the players and coaches this week it will be all about finding a way to outscore and make defensive stops on Ball State. It should be a high-scoring and entertaining game for the large crowd of over 30,000 expected at Michie Stadium.
Watch for a 45-40 game, if Bacon, Jeffries, Mackey, Meier, Watts and all can make plays, this could turn out in favor of the Black Knights.
Ken Kraetzer covers Army football for WVOX in New Rochelle, NY and Sons of the American Legion Radio. Twitter: SAL50NYRadio, Facebook: West Point Football Report