Army (2-4) come off their bye week to travel to Nashville (3-3) to play a hungry Vanderbilt team for a 7PM EST matchup that will be available nationally on ESPNU and WABC 770 radio in the New York metropolitan area.
The Black Knights saw their bye week as an opportunity to catch up on school work at the Academy and for injuries to heal. The second half of the season has major challenges for Army, starting with this visit to Southeastern Conference team Vanderbilt, the last home game at Michie Stadium against Fordham, the trip to Air Force, a home game at Yankee Stadium against Rutgers and a trip to Philadelphia to face Temple. Then, to close the season, there's the annual rivalry game with Navy on December 10th.
At his weekly press conference, Head Coach Rich Ellerson talked about how his team utilized the off week in their schedule:
"The bye week is a fundamental opportunity, a chance to go back to training camp if you will. We're treating the second half of the season as a season unto itself."
Coach Ellerson makes a constant effort with both his team and the media to direct focus to the next game only and for the players to play the games one play at a time. He commented on this approach:
"We made this absolute commitment, regardless of the situation, regardless of the scoreboard, regardless of what happened last week, we are going to treat every game like a season unto itself. We are going to stay in the moment."
For the Army defensive players and coaches, this bye provided an opportunity to regroup after a first six games when they gave up an average of 29 points and 392 yards per game. Of course, nine turnovers in six games have caused several pressure situations for the defense.
The depth chart does not show changes from the Miami game, but look for more variations in tactics to help cover the middle of the line and to prevent receivers from beating defenders down field.
The offense, on the other hand, has the running game at a high-octane level, leading the entire NCAA in rushing with an average of 361 yards per game.
The Black Knights' sporadic passing game is showing potential with quarterback No. 8 Trent Steelman completing his last 11 throws against Tulane and Miami for 194 yards and two touchdowns.
Steelman, a native of nearby Bowling Green, Kentucky, will have a big group of family and friends at Vanderbilt stadium. I asked the coach if we may see an expanded passing attack:
"We're not surprised that we can throw the ball a little bit. That's something that's been evident at practice. We try to pick our times to do that. Trent will be excited to be home and will have a few more people in the stands.
"But he has a pretty loyal following of family that sees him play pretty much every week. We're going to lose ourselves in this one moment, and certainly he'll be excited to play as he's ever been. But, so will we all."
We can expect No. 1 Ray Maples to carry the ball 12 to 15 times per game, building off of his three consecutive 100-yard games. Fellow slot back No. 23 Malcolm Brown continues to generate big plays with a 7.7 yards per rush average. Look for fullback No. 7 Jared Hassin to be given an expanded opportunity to run the ball in addition to his strong blocking ability.
One recent change since the Ball State game three weeks ago is the placement in the starting lineup at center of freshman No. 52 Ryan Powis from Midlothian, Virginia. No. 66 Will Wilson moves to right guard, backing up junior No. 71 Matt Villanti from Katy, Texas.
Coach Ellerson has mentioned several times the potential he sees in Ryan Powis at center:
"We think Ryan is doing a fine job at center. That's a key position for us, just like any guy who's right down the middle of your team - pitchers, catchers, goalies or offensive centers and quarterbacks. He's right at the heart of the offensive effort and the good news is, he has a year under his belt playing at the prep school. We had high expectations of him when he got here. He has stepped into that role and we're not surprised that he's being effective there."
New Vanderbilt coach James Franklin comes from Maryland where he was the offensive coordinator. He has generated considerable press attention for the team including an article in Sports Illustrated. A high energy confident guy, the goal he sets for his team is "Don't be intimidated by anyone". This comes across clearly in his press conference video prepared earlier this week.
I also asked Coach Ellerson about what he expects to see from the Commodores new head coach:
"This team is a reflection of the coach's personality. He's a very aggressive, enthusiastic and energetic guy. You can see his team has fed off him. They are blowing up all over the place. Sometimes they blow up in their own face, but they're aggressive and playing with a lot of emotion. He coaches with a lot of emotion. That has made them more competitive this year."
Vanderbilt comes into the game having lost three straight to SEC opponents, including a shutout loss at Alabama two weeks ago and a heated close loss at home to Georgia last week. Their victories are a 45-14 win against FCS team Elon, a 24-21 win against Connecticut and a 30-7 stomping of SEC foe Mississippi.
Watch for the 'Dores to come up with some trick offensive plays. Rich Ellison commented about facing an SEC team on the road, while needing a big effort to win their third game of the season:
"[Vanderbilt] came out really strong this year, have struggled the last couple of weeks to get a win, but they've played really well against good annual competition. They are explosive and do all kinds of things on offense. They were explosive last week in the kicking game - blocked a kick, faked a kick, returned a kick for a touchdown. They do all the things that make you crazy in the special teams area. Defensively, they have battled everybody to a standstill."
Army goes into this one as an 11-point underdog. The keys will be the defense slowing down the Vanderbilt offense just enough to give the Army offense the chance to run long, ball-control drives down the field. A commentator said this week how demoralizing it is for the defense when they cannot stop a running team like Army from methodically running the ball, play after play, down field.
There is positive history on their side as Army won the last match up in 2009—an 16-13 overtime victory on an Alex Carlton field goal at Michie Stadium. If Army can get ahead, play ball control, make a few pass plays work and get the crowd out of the game, they have a shot.
A win would give Army a chance to even their record at 4-4 next week against Fordham and keep alive their hopes to play in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl.
You might have thought this a trap game for Vanderbilt, a game where a team lets down a bit against a perceived lesser opponent. Almost anyone is a lesser opponent after you have just played Alabama and Georgia back to back.
Games like that can take a lot, physically, out of a team. Ask Ball State, who were just shutout at home 42-0 by Temple after getting beaten badly 62-6 at Oklahoma. Watching Coach Franklin's press conference this week, it is evident this is a coach that will have his team fired up and ready to play.
Should be a good one Saturday Night in Nashville: Army and Vanderbilt!
Ken Kraetzer produces the West Point Football Report by SAL Radio broadcast every Tuesday night during the season from New Rochelle, NY on WVOX 1460 and heard nationally on WVOX.com. Reach Ken on firstname.lastname@example.org.