After their first win of the season against Villanova, the Army Black Knights get their first bye week of the season this Saturday. Bye weeks provide teams a chance to re-evaluate where they’re at compared to their pre-season expectations. It’s no different at Army, where expectations continue to grow with each winning season under head coach Jeff Monken.
With last Saturday’s win, Monken took sole possession of second place on Army’s all-time wins list for head coaches, trailing only the legendary Earl “Red” Blaik. The cadets have posted seasons with nine wins or more in four of the past five seasons. More importantly, they have had four wins against Navy in the past six seasons. Army has been to a bowl game in five of the past six seasons, a total that matches their total number of bowl appearances combined before Monken arrived in the Hudson Valley nine years ago.
Army At The Bye Week
With Army’s recent success under Monken, expectations were understandably high coming into 2022. Army had a chance to make a statement this season, playing a schedule that’s a little tougher than in recent years.
Not all 0-2 teams are the same. Army fans were understandably disappointed with their team’s start. Army held second-half leads against both Coastal Carolina, on the road, and UTSA, at home. Remember, UTSA was the Conference USA Conference Champions and 12-2 in 2021 while Coastal Carolina was an 11-2 team with a bowl win last season. Both of these teams are top-tier teams in the Group of Five, and Army let victory slip away.
That was especially true in the UTSA game. Army had over 300 yards of passing, but two fumbles by Army’s two most dependable players enabled 21 second-half points for the Roadrunners.
Army’s vaunted flex bone offense never found a rhythm in either of the first two games. The Black Knights got back to basics against a solid Villanova team last week, however, with 472 yards of total offense. While the sting of two big missed opportunities still hurts Army fans, the performance against Villanova indicates better things ahead this season.
And while both quarterbacks, Tyhier Tyler and Cade Ballard, have played well, neither has separated themselves as the starter. It will be interesting to see the workload distribution between the two against Georgia State.
Thin With The Big Men
Army’s offense might run through the quarterback, but it only goes as far as the B-Backs (fullback) take it. Army is normally deep at the big man position, but this season it’s a two-man show. Jakobi Buchanan and Tyson Riley have all but 3 of the B-Back carries so far in 2022. Buchanan left Saturday’s game with an injury after the first drive, and Riley carried almost the entire load for the remainder of the game. This is even more remarkable because Riley was a game-time decision due to his own lingering injury.
If Army wants to get back to its winning ways, they’ll need to get both Riley and Buchanan back and healthy. B-Backs Hayden Reed, Markel Johnson, and A.J. Williams will have to step up and gain the coach’s confidence. Buchanan and Riley can’t carry the entire load between the two of them for the rest of the season.
Discipline and Mistakes
Probably the biggest concern for Army early in this season is the breakdown of the basics of turnovers and penalties. In three games, Army has 20 total penalties for 195 yards. That includes multiple chop block fouls on the offensive line that has set the offense in long yardage situation and at least two pass interference penalties that have kept opponents’ drives alive. In an offense like Army’s, you cannot afford to be behind the chains at any point, especially against two teams that were a combined 23-4 in 2021.
Army’s aforementioned fumbles don’t amount to a lot statistically, but they were -3 overall in the turnover margin in the first two games. Army already plays on a razor’s edge margin because of their style of play, and it’s almost impossible to survive with a -3 turnover margin against quality opponents.
And to be fair to Army’s offense, the defense hasn’t played up to its potential, either. Absent from the losses to Coastal Carolina and UTSA were the big plays on defense that lead to those turnovers last season. Army’s pass rush was effectively contained against both opponents, and the defensive backfield, normally a bend-but-not-break unit, has been broken a few too many times so far in 2022.
Look for Army to focus on the basics during the bye week. Even though the schedule lightens up a little, these types of mistakes could cost them a game they should win going forward.
Speaking of going forward, Army fans should be optimistic about the remainder of the season. They’ll be favored in three of the four games in the middle third of the schedule — Georgia State, Colgate, and ULM all at home — before getting another bye in week nine. A trip to Winston-Salem to play Wake Forest will be the only time the cadets will be betting underdogs during that stretch.
The last third of the schedule is similar, as they will be favorites against at least three teams, UConn, Massachusetts, and Navy. They will likely be underdogs heading into their matchup with Air Force on November 5th. But the key swing game will be at Troy on Veterans’ Day weekend. The Trojans are a solid team, and Army will have to play mistake-free to get out of Alabama with a win.
Of course, it doesn’t really matter what the records are against Navy. Navy slightly spoiled Army’s 2021 campaign with an upset win in Philadelphia. Monken and crew will be keen to get back in the win column against Navy while the Midshipman program is struggling. A win against either Air Force or Navy assures Army would retain the Commander-In-Chiefs Trophy as well.
Army is still on track for a winning season and a trip to the Independence Bowl in Shreveport in December.
Army is on track for a seven-win season, with the Troy game likely being a toss-up to get an eighth win.
Disappointment As A Measuring Stick
Even with seven or eight wins, many Army fans will still be a little disappointed in the 2022 campaign. And that’s O.K.
That disappointment speaks to just how far Monken has brought this program. There was a time not long ago when a bowl game was aspirational for the Black Knights program. Not anymore. Monken has taken the ceiling of the program and made it the bare minimum. At an institution that is as bound by its history as much as West Point is, he has moved the football program forward like no coach before him, and he has done so in concert with the constraints that come with the job.
Our nation expects a great deal from West Point. And now West Point expects the same from its flagship athletic program.
So there is certainly work to be done on this bye week.