Yours truly will be making the trek back to the promised land this weekend when the 'Dores take on Army for Homecoming. This is a crucial match-up for the 'Dores if they want to reach bowl eligibility. Below is a discussion of Army's style and three keys to a 'Dores victory.
Army on Offense
Army is well-known for running the triple-option offense: a run-heavy clock-control style premised on taking advantage of defensive mistakes. That is the bare-bones explanation of it, but I'm sure most college football fans are familiar with its effect. The key defenders in stopping this offense are the middle and outside linebackers, the strong safety, and, most importantly, the defensive end. The play starts out with an initial dive read where the quarterback observes the linebackers and defensive front. If the QB decides not to give the ball to the running back, he's going to come off the edge with a tailback in option pitch range. This is where the defensive end is so crucial, because he is the player whom the QB is going to make his read based on. His actions determine whether or not the QB is going to pitch the ball or he is going to tuck it and run. It's really as simple as that. The play can occur out of several different formations, and there might be a few wrinkles involved, but that is the bread and butter of the triple-option. Occassionally in the offense a pass will be sprinkled in just to keep defenses honest. This is where Georgia Tech has made themselves somewhat of a threat (they are averaging 13.43 yards per attempt on 88 pass attempts). For Army, that threat is near non-existant (46 passes with only 7.59 yards per attempt.) Now, if you've ever dabbled in NCAA football and played as Tech, you probably didn't need me to explain that to you, but it's my blog so heck I'm going to do it anyway.
Army has an experienced QB in Junior Trent Steelman, who led the Black Knights to a 7-6 campaign last year and is by far their most important player. They also return their leading rusher from a year ago in FB Jared Hassin, but his role has been somewhat supplanted by sophomore TB Raymond Maples. Sprinkled into that trio is Junior TB Malcolm Brown. Steelman is the leading rusher and also has the most attempts, but all four combine to lead the nation in rushing offense.
Army's offensive line lost 4 starters from last year's group. The only starter remaining is Junior G Frank Allen. This inexperience is Army's primary weak point on offense.
Army on Defense
Since the beginning of his tenure at Army, head coach Rich Ellerson has incorporated the double-eagle flex defense, a rather strange adaptation that's not exactly a 4-3, and not exactly a 3-4. Regardless, here's how it works.
It's easiest to explain starting with the secondary. The corners and free safety are playing a basic 3-deep zone for the most part, although sometimes you can get man coverage on the wide receivers. The strong safety is basically acting as an additional outside linebacker. Depending on which side is the strong side, the safety is going to adjust to that position. The other two linebackers are going to be lined up about where they would be in a 4-3 with some adjustments based on where the tackles line up. Additionally, on the strong side, the end and defensive tackle are lined up just about where they'd be in a standard 4-3, except that the end does not stretch out to the tight end's outside shoulder. Now here's where things get kind of screwy.
First off, the nose guard is going to line up at an angle just off the center's inside shoulder on the weakside of the offense. His sole job is to make the center miserable the entire game by crashing down into his inside hip. The purpose for this technique is to essentially take the center out of any blocking scheme the offense may want to run and put all of the pressure on the weakside guard. Additionally, you have a flex backer who is lined up over the weakside guard about 2-3 yards off the ball. His job is to read that guard and either fill the hole or scrape to that side. This leaves the weakside tackle 1 on 1 with the backside defensive end. That defensive end doesn't rush as the end would in a traditional 4-3. It more or less plays like a spy. It's going to blow up any weakside rush, but it could also scrape to the opposite side if it sees a strongside run. Finally, on pass plays, the end will drop back into coverage and take away anything in the flat.
Coach Ellison no doubt has certain variations and has modified that defense in certain ways, but that's the basic technique behind the double-eagle flex. The defense is designed to be a run stopper and short-to-intermediate pass-stopper by overloading the strong side and eliminating weakside blockers. In short, they want you to run the ball to where they have more defenders. Additionally, with the SS, defensive end, and linebackers kind of floating about, they are geared at stopping any kind of short-to-intermediate pass plays (slants, curls, short out routes).
Army, however, is not an elite defense. They only returned 5 starters from last year's team and are allowing 220 ypg passing and 166 ypg rushing.
Keys to the Game
1) Play disciplined defensive football
Coach Franklin has been preparing for this game since the offseason because of the uniqueness of Army's offense. If every defender doesn't play their responsibilities correctly, lanes open up for big plays. Initially, the DTs (Lohr and whoever else) have to clog the middle and keep Marve clean. This will prevent the first read which is the dive play up the middle. Next comes the most important part. The key is for the DEs to win the position battle and to force the QB outside. Once that is accomplished, it's up to the outside linebackers (Garnham and Barnes) as well as the SS (Richardson) to swarm to the tailback and clean the play up, or at least force the play to the sideline. While some wrinkles will come into play, if Vandy accomplishes those assignments on a significant majority of Army's plays, they will win the game.
2) Find some semblance of a passing game
Army, simply put, is not a good pass defense. Some of that is because of their personnel. Other reasons is that in a 3-deep zone you have an awful lot of one-on-ones with the receivers on the outside. Fortunately for Army, their greatest defensive weakness is our greatest offensive weakness.
Because Army isn't very good at stopping the run either, Vandy doesn't need to pass to win this game. If they can overpower their undersized front on the strong side and get some lineman out on the linebacker and strong safety, then Zac Stacy can do the rest. However, the real weakness for this defense is the vertical passing game, which as we know has been a relative non-factor for Vanderbilt's offense for quite some time. That being said, we aren't going up against elite level talent on the outside, and while our receivers are somewhat green, they do have some physical gifts and speed that can help us take advantage of the vertical passing game. CJF has constantly preached about being more explosive as an offense, and this is a game where he can do it.
3) Win When You Should
This isn't really a key to the game in terms of actual execution, but is more like a mental key. Simply put, as has been shown in the past, Vandy loses these types of games when they really shouldn't. There is a disparity in the talent level on the field. While Coach Ellison has done a fantastic job with Army's program, Coach Franklin and his staff have shown that they can run with SEC teams, who aren't slouches coaching-wise either. Coach Franklin has preached about differences and changes in the mental make-up of his players. They believe. But believing when you're the underdog and believing when you're an 8.5 point favorite has proven to be two different things for the 'Dores in the past. For the program to go forward, there needs to be just as much killer instinct, sharp preparation, and mental toughness in the face of adversity in games like this as there are in SEC games. Fortunately, CJF knows that and preaches it.
I'm looking forward to my first game back in quite a while. See you in the Stadium on Saturday.