Following a very workman-like 30-13 victory over the CSU Rams, the Falcons will move 60 miles down the Front Range of Colorado to take on the Black Knights of Army in the second installment of the battle for the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy at Empower Field in Denver. Due to the fact I reverted to retirement mode earlier in the week and blew off the summary of the Colorado State game, I’ll start with my thoughts on that game and then continue with a preview of the Army game.
Takeaways from the victory over the Rams
Tell me if this sounds familiar: The Falcon offense comes alive and the defense shuts down the (insert team here) offense in the second half to lead the Falcons to victory.
The Rams moved the ball in the first half fairly easily against the Falcon defense, and yet the only touchdown they could convert was on a 61 yard pass over the top from one hyphenated player to another, Fowler-Nicolosi to Ross-Simmons. The defense was able to stall out two other drives that resulted in field goals. Meanwhile, after an early touchdown drive, the offense was stuck in the snow until the defense bailed them out on a strip sack by Bo Richter that put them on the Ram’s 11 yard line. Three plays later, John Lee Eldridge was in the end zone on a 10 yard run. The first half ended in a 13-13 tie. Despite that, I was feeling good about the Falcon’s chances because the Rams weren’t finishing drives well, and I was anticipating the normal Falcon second half move.
In short, the second half was all Falcons. Fowler-Nicolosi reverted to freshman form and it became obvious he had never played in cold weather (he went to high school in Texas). The Falcons started harassing the QB better. The Rams aren’t built to run the football, so that wasn’t an option. The Falcons wore down the defensive front of the Rams and the dive plays started getting chunks of yards, and edge running got easier. The result was a 30-13 victory.
I went back and looked at each game this season, and there have only been two exceptions to the following statement: the only time an opponent has scored against the Falcons in the second half was when the Falcons had at least a three score lead. The first exception was in the second game of the year against Sam Houston when the Bearkats kicked a field goal after a Falcon fumble at the Sam Houston 38 yard line, and the second was against Wyoming when the Falcons fumbled the ball away on their own 25 yard line and the Cowboys took it in for a touchdown.
A lot of factors have to come together to create that kind of dominance:
- The coaching staff has to be good at adjusting at half time to whatever game plan the opponent is employing against the team.
- The conditioning of the players has to be superior to the opponent.
- The talent level and experience of the players needs to be high.
- The depth at each position should be good enough to withstand injuries.
- The offense needs to control the ball for long stretches.
The Academy is blessed with a brain trust of coaches that have played for the Falcons and are familiar with what the cadets deal with and what motivates them.
The players live and practice at high altitude and have one of the best conditioning coaches in the business, Matt McGettigan, who has been with the team for 17 seasons.
The defensive depth chart is filled with seniors that have been regular starters for several years. Inside linebackers Alec Mock and Johnathan Youngblood and safety Jayden Goodwin have been playing regularly for four years, thanks to the turnbacks during the Covid season. Linebacker Bo Richter and safety Trey Taylor have started or played extensively in the last three seasons. I would think we will see all of those names in postseason all conference lists.
One of the most remarkable things about this season has been the depth in the defensive backfield. Prior to fall practice, the Falcons lost starting cornerbacks Eian Castonguay and Michael Mack to injury and transfer. Jamari Bellamy and Jerome Gaillard stepped right in and have proven adept at staying close to their assigned receivers. At spur linebacker, Camby Goff was lost to injury early in the season, and CJ Boyd stepped right in as a solid replacement. Boyd was injured against Navy and Jalen Mergerson had an all-conference level performance while shadowing FBS football’s most productive tight end Dallin Holker and tallying 13 tackles (9 solo) and two pass breakups. Trey Williams replaced Gaillard early in the game against the Rams and had a solo tackle and 2 pass breakups.
The Falcon offense controlled the ball for 20 of the 30 minutes in the second half of the Ram game, and on the year holds a 34:19 to 25:41 time of possession advantage, best in FBS.
The Black Knights come into this reeling from five straight losses including back-to-back shutouts from LSU and Troy, and a 21-14 loss to Massachusetts at home, generally regarded as one of the worst teams in FBS. The conversion to the new offense is not going well. The offense is averaging only 190.6 yards rushing per game as compared to 289.4 last year. That might be okay if the pass game had improved, but the Black Knights are getting only 132.6 yards per game as compared to 76.7 last year, not enough to make up the difference. Even worse, Army is turning the ball over at a much greater pace than last year. They have 10 interceptions, 19 fumbles and 10 lost fumbles this year, which is more in each category than in the entire 12 game season last year.
Junior quarterback Bryson Daily leads the offense in rushing with 518 yards and an average of 4.1 yards per carry. He’s completing 50% of his passes with 6 TDs and 6 interceptions in 90 attempts. Bryson has been banged up lately, so freshman Champ Harris has seen playing time recently. He’s completed 55.8% of his 34 passes, but has thrown three interceptions.
Freshman Kanye Udoh is the leading running back with 364 yards and a 5.4 average. Junior Tyrell Robinson has been a dangerous runner, receiver, and kick returner in the past for Army, but he missed the first part of the season with an injury, and has been a bit limited in his activity since his return.
Army’s best receiver is Isaiah Alston, but he has missed the last four games with an ankle injury. He was averaging almost 30 yards per catch with 9 receptions before his injury. He is listed as questionable for this game. Noah Short and Casey Reynolds have filled in with 27 receptions and 381 yards between them.
As I researched the Black Knights, I couldn’t help but notice all the injuries the offense has suffered and the utilization of quite a few freshmen in their places. I’m sure this has been a factor in their recent struggles, and the Falcon’s will need to be careful if some of the injured can return to the rotation with a healthier body.
Defensively, the Black Knights have generally been a bend but don’t break group, if you ignore the game against LSU and it’s top notch offense. There have been a few games that point to some difficulty in rushing defense. Boston College was able to put up 321 yards and UMass RB Kay’ron Lynch-Adams rolled to 234 yards and 3 TDs. As usual in service academy games though, Army knows exactly what to look for with the Falcon’s offense. OC Mike Thiessen will likely be trying some new looks to confuse the defense and allow the Diesels to make some holes for the running backs, and allow the receivers to slip behind the secondary for some big plays.
In the end, the Falcons should be able to follow their script and wear down the Black Knight defense and overpower the offense.
Currently, DraftKings has the line at Falcons -18.5 with an over/under of 31.5 points, which implies a score of 25-7. Just because it’s a CIC game, I don’t think the Falcons will cover, I’ll predict a 21-7 Falcon victory.