Army Football: Tulane Game-Crisis Week for Black Knights
Eliot Asinof in the late 1960s wrote a football book called Seven Days to Sunday, Crisis Week with the New York Giants.
The era of prearranged bowl games makes this a "Crisis" week for West Point. After a bowl win last year and a contract with a New Year's Eve bowl again this season, it is an important goal to win six games and again be "Bowl Eligible." To have a realistic chance to reach six wins in 2011, Army needs to defeat Tulane on Saturday.
West Point as a service academy has a national following of alumni, not to mention the millions of Army veterans all over the country, which makes them an attractive guest for a bowl committee. They are contracted to play in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl at AT&T Park on New Year's Eve if they can win six games. So besides the annual mega goals of beating Navy and Air Force, there is a bowl game to play for this week.
For a realistic shot at the postseason, the Black Knights (1-3) dearly need a win on Saturday at Michie Stadium against Tulane (2-2). It is homecoming at West Point, so a capacity crowd of over 35,000 is expected; there will be no lack of crowd support. A win for the Black Knights will put them back on track for bowl eligibility at 2-2, with two road contests coming up.
Meanwhile, the coaches stress they can only play one game each week.
"Every week, you're trying to be 1-0." commented head coach Rich Ellerson at his weekly press conference call, "All we're trying to do is be 1-0 somehow, some way, this week. We're going to run our offense. We're going to run our defense. In the backdrop of all this is West Point and what we're doing daily here. We have to deal with what's happening
now, and if we'll do that, we'll have a chance to go out there and put our best foot forward, and if we do that, we have a chance to win. Nothing else, frankly, enters into it."
The Green Wave, led by former UCLA head coach Bob Toledo, comes into Michie Stadium with strong wins over Southeastern Louisiana and UAB and 20-point losses to Tulsa 31-3 and last week at Duke 48-27. They have not really played any close games; they either win big or lose big.
The two teams and schools know each other well from playing each other 13 of the last 14 years going back to Army's membership in Conference USA. The teams have won at each other's stadiums the last two years, with a Tulane 17-16 win at Michie Stadium in 2009 and the Black Knights win 41-23 last year at the Superdome.
The Green Wave like Army is a stronger offensive team than defense. They average 246 yards per game in the air, which is more than twice the 122 yards they average on the ground. QB No. 11 Ryan Griffin threw 14-for-29 last week against Duke for 188 yards and a touchdown. They spread their running game among a number of backs, led by tailbacks No. 26 Orleans Darkwa and No. 25 Albert Williams. Watch on kicks No. 2 Robert Kelley, who is averaging 22.6 yards per return.
Watch for Tulane to try some trick plays on offense against the young Army defense. Commented Coach Ellerson:
"They are a team that will be resourceful. They'll have the double reverse, the flea flicker pass and throw back to the quarterback all on the same doggone play. They throw it deep, they throw it short, they do some fly stuff, some zone cuts, zone reads and they throw the ball to the backs. They won't try to do everything in every game, but they have a lot of resources to draw from in terms of system."
On Defense, Tulane is giving up 377 yards per game, with 254 yards of that in the air and 122 on the ground. Middle linebacker No. 20 Trent Mackey is a key stopper with 13 tackles recorded last week.
Word from New Orleans is that Coach Toledo felt his team was not physical enough in their loss at Duke last week and instituted "Alley Drills." which are two on one blocking and tackling drills for the first time this season. He described plans to use more linebackers this week to counter Army's option running game.
At his press conference, Toledo said, "We are going to be playing more bigger guys, more linebacker type people, to take care of that offense".
For Army, a team averaging per game 372 yards rushing the football, third best in the NCAA, the keys are avoid mistakes, control the clock and complete drives. Last week. two blocking fouls and an interception hurt them badly in the first half.
The plus side is that the ground game is being nicely spread by QB No. 8 Trent Steelman to fullback No. 7 Jared Hassin and slotbacks No. 23 Malcolm Brown and No. 1 Ray Maples. Last week, Hassin finally got untracked and ran for over 115 yards, his first 100-plus yard effort of 2011 after exceeding 1,000 yards last year.
"We're getting some yards, but when are we getting them? We have to play consistently." commented Coach Ellerson about his running game, "We're going to have to be consistently productive. We're going to have to manage that. We can't take plays or quarters off."
What the Black Knights need to eventually do is find ways to stretch the defense in the air. They may be ok this week mostly using the option running game, but later in the year against teams which can stack the outside, they will need more. Army QB Trent Steelman needs to get the ball to wide outs like the two fast sophomores No. 88 Jared McFarlin or No. 2 Anthony Stephens. Watch for Army to try what they added in midseason last year, which is short passes to backs coming out of the back field. Last year, Hassin caught 12 passes, starting in Week 5 for 154 yards.
"We can protect better so that the quarterback's not always scrambling. Still, somebody's going to have to go up and catch a ball. Somebody's going to have to throw it in a place where it can be caught, and somebody's going to have to protect. It's not rocket science." commented Ellerson about making the passing game productive.
A factor to watch for Army is how the changes to the offensive line due to the serious injury suffered last week by right guard Joe Bailey, who left the field on a cart. Junior No. 71 Matt Villanti will step up to start to the left of center No. 66 Will Wilson and right tackle senior No. 68 Mike McDermott. Watch for No. 76 senior Robert Kava from American Samoa do compete for playing time for the Black Knights up front.On the left side is junior No. 79 Frank Allen at guard and senior No. 78 Brad Kelley at tackle.
Information about injuries is kept very tight at colleges partly due to regulations. I asked about the injury last week to senior Joe Bailey and the impact of his loss on the offensive line.
"He's doing fine, but obviously we won't have him back, and that's tragic. That's the worst part of the game," commented coach Ellerson. "The good news is that it's the kind of injury that he can expect a full and complete recovery from."
The defense was beaten for 383 yards passing last week at Ball State, which will have to toughen up considerably to stay with a good passing team like Tulane. Look for defensive tackle No. 92 A.J. Mackey to be set up with plays to rush the Tulane backfield.
Overall, the defense has been led by the play of co-captain No. 9 Steve Erzinger, who has 51 tackles after four games into the season. The next Black Knight on the sheet is sophomore free safety No. 17 Tyler Dickson, with 21. When I asked if Erzinger having 30 more tackles than his next teammate on defense reflects his solid play or that too many plays were reaching him, coach Ellerson said,
"(Erzinger) He's playing well. He'll still find plenty of things to be critical about with himself, but he's being very productive. He is making some plays, frankly, that he shouldn't have to make. We need to be a more complete outfit on defense if we're going to have some success here."
On special teams, the Black Knights would really like to set up senior kicker Alex Carleton so he would make a field goal and rid himself of the slump he has been in. Last week, a botched snap and hold missed an opportunity to put first half points on the board when it was 7-0.
Commented coach Ellerson:
"That was a snap and a hold issue (against Ball State). He actually struck the ball very well on those extra points and whatnot. I think he'll manage this OK. He's one-third of that equation."
Trent Steelman did a good job of summing up what the Black Knights have to do to beat Tulane:
"Like we face every week, they have a quick, athletic defense. We have established ourselves as an offense that can be potent, but at the same time, we can keep you on the field. That's what we need to do: keep their defense out there and their offense off the field."
"They are good for about a trick play a quarter," comments Steve Erzinger, "They have some crafty stuff that they like to throw at you. It's really guys just staying home, doing their assignment and waiting for that reverse or that trick pass."
Watch for the offense to play their ball control game and get on the board several times in the first half. Hopefully the mix of Brown, Maples and Hassin can keep some of the hits off Steelman so he can play the whole game. As to the passing game, look for a pass or two directed to a back coming out of the backfield.
Key for Army defense is to stop the Tulane passing game. The defensive backs need to keep the game in front of them and watch for Army to try some odd blitzes to get more pressure on the Tulane quarterback.
So there you have it, a "Crisis Week" at West Point, the week which will keep their bowl chances alive or label the year strictly rebuilding and waiting for the Navy game. They are favored by a touchdown, and are playing well at home.
My Prediction: Army 24 -Tulane 17. What do you think?
Ken Kraetzer produces the West Point Football Report from Sons of the American Legion Radio heard every Tuesday at 5:30 PM during the season on WVOX 1460 AM in New Rochelle, NY. Contact him on firstname.lastname@example.org
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