Losing to Navy only shines a national spotlight on what we all know already: Army hasn’t been bad just once a year – once a year every December since 2002 – but subpar every seven days for nearly two decades.
Go Army, beat Navy? Not yet. Lost in the shuffle of the Cadets’ extended losing streak is how the program has made permanent residence among the nation’s least productive programs, positing one winning season since 1996 with 13 seasons of eight or more losses.
Go Army, beat Navy – but first, beat someone else. The cure for what ails Army isn’t just one win but several; if antithetical to the general theme of Army football – nothing is important as beating Navy – this is a football program that should take five consecutive winning seasons that end with a loss to Navy, as painful as that sounds, over five more losing seasons that end in jubilation.
Tell that to the Cadets, the ex-Cadets, the Corps of Cadets and the new coach, Jeff Monken. Formerly of Georgia Southern, Monken brings expertise in the option attack and a hard-nosed style to a program desperate for a coaching upgrade. His charge? Beat Navy, beat anybody, beat everybody – win games, basically, and in this way Army is no different than anyone else. It just may be harder to win here than anywhere else.
LAST YEAR’S PREDICTION:
There’s really only one truly winnable game on this schedule, Morgan State, along with several toss-up games against teams similarly skimming along the lower range of the FBS: Hawaii, Temple, Eastern Michigan and Western Kentucky, to name four. It’s not the toughest schedule in the country, just one not entirely conducive to a breakthrough season, and not one that leaves Army poised for anything close to six or seven wins and a bowl trip. There are too many holes for the Cadets to turn last season’s painful close into something positive.
In a nutshell: From Oct. 19 through the end of the season, Army lost to three 10-loss teams – Temple, Air Force and Hawaii – and to Navy. As bad as it’s been since 1997, this might have been the worst close to a regular season in program history. What was missing? Consistency, explosiveness, defensive toughness, mental toughness and fire. Other than those missing assets, Army was a behemoth. One series serves to define Army’s season: Down 28-7 to Navy with 6:01 left in the fourth quarter, the Cadets allowed the Midshipmen to go on a nine-play, 36-yard drive that spanned more than five minutes and ended in six. It was a fitting conclusion to Rich Ellerson’s five-year run with the program.
High point: Army won two games during a three-week midseason span: Louisiana Tech (35-16) on Sept. 28 and Eastern Michigan (50-25) on Oct. 12.
Low point: Another loss to Navy, the Cadets’ 12th in a row in the now-lopsided rivalry.
Tidbit: Lost amid Army’s losing streak to Navy has been the program’s ineffectiveness against major-conference competition. The Cadets are 5-33 since 2002 against teams currently in the Big Five conferences, beating Baylor in 2006, Vanderbilt in 2009, Duke in 2010, Northwestern in 2011 and Boston College in 2012. None of those five opponents finished with a winning record, though Northwestern did reach the postseason.
Tidbit (coaching edition): Several new assistants come over from Georgia Southern, such as offensive coordinator Brent Davis, quarterbacks coach Mitch Ware and running backs coach Lamont Seward. Another three hires came from Football Bowl Subdivision positions: defensive coordinator Jay Bateman from Ball State, defensive line coach Ray McCartney from Wake Forest and special teams coordinator and outside linebackers coach Jovan Dewitt from Florida Atlantic. All things considered, Monken inked a really good debut staff.
ARBITRARY TOP FIVE LIST:
College football teams of the 1940s
1. 1944 Army2. 1945 Army3. 1941 Minnesota4. 1947 Michigan5. 1949 Notre Dame
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
Offense: Army’s offensive line is unsteady, a troubling fact for an offense that needs a strong front five to reach its full potential. Changes are afoot: Justin Gilbert returns at right tackle and Steve Shumaker at left guard – the Cadets had the same five start all 12 games last fall – but Ryan Powis was moved from center to left tackle, where he exited the spring behind junior Drew Hennessey. In bookending the line with Hennessey and Gilbert, the Cadets will have two lanky, athletic bodies on the edges. On the interior, Shumaker will be joined by sophomore center Matt Hugenberg and sophomore right guard Stefan Moreau. The line will renew its competition in August, but this group – with Shumaker and Gilbert assured of starting roles – has much to prove before taking on Buffalo in the opener.
Monken will surround this in-progress offensive front with an impressive array of talent at the skill positions. The backfield’s top pair is terrific: Terry Baggett (1,113 yards) combines reliability with a dose of the big play, two traits in high demand, while Larry Dixon (699 yards) seems poised for a banner season within an offense more reliant on fullback play. If both remain healthy, don’t be surprised if Baggett and Dixon combine for 2,000 yards on the ground – if the line fulfills its end of the bargain, that is. Depth isn’t an issue: Army has Trenton Turrentine, Stephen Fraser, Elijah St. Hilaire, Tony Giovanelli and Matt Giachinta, so if anything there’s a chance one or two reserve backs go hungry for carries.
At Monken’s Georgia Southern, wide receivers were jokingly referred to as “wide blockers.” Yeah, Army’s receivers will be on the edges and fringes getting in the way of defensive backs, but Monken would like to use the pass more so than his predecessor – not to an extreme degree, of course, but just enough to loosen up defenses from the box. One target in particular stands out: Xavier Moss (35 receptions for 463 yards) might be the most promising Army receiver in ages. With Moss doing most of the heavy lifting, all the Cadets really need are another pair of secondary pass-catchers to relieve some pressure – not that Monken has found those receivers, but between Chevaughan Lawrence, Kelvin White and Corey Hobbs, he might be able to cobble together some options.
Defense: A simple lack of size will lead the Cadets to struggle against the run, continuing a recent trend. But Army can offset this weakness with quickness, aggressiveness and opportunism throughout each level of the defense – easier said than done, but that’s the general idea. The same group returns up front: Mike Ugenyi (39 tackles, 6.5 for loss), Robert Kough, Ryan Alexander and Derek Sanchez lead the way at end; 254-pound senior Richard Glover (34 tackles) will serve at nose tackle despite the huge size disadvantage; and senior Joe Drummond at tackle – all 233 pounds of him. Eventually, trust in Monken and Bateman to find the scheme needed to overcome the lack of size up front. But that won’t happen in 2014.
The Cadets need senior Julian Holloway (42 tackles) to lend experience to a linebacker corps transitioning to a younger cast. Two sophomores had moved into starting roles at the end of spring drills: Andrew King in the middle and Jeremy Timpf on the weak side. But the number of older options listed on the two-deep on the strong side – Holloway, Stephen Ricciardi, Dalton Mendenhall and Addison Holstein – could lead to a shakeup in August, with Holloway one potential mover to the weak side due to his ability to move in space. Not to harp on this fact, but let’s keep it in mind: Army’s current front seven averages 228.29 pounds.
Geoffrey Bacon (63 tackles) will remain at strong safety under the new staff, giving the Cadets a run-to-the-ball defender along the back end – when he’s healthy, at least, and keeping Bacon in the lineup is a major priority for this defense. The starting four is set: Bacon at strong safety, senior Hayden Pierce (42 tackles) at free, junior Chris Carnegie (50 tackles) at boundary cornerback and sophomore Josh Jenkins (34 tackles) at field cornerback. After a very nice rookie campaign, Jenkins looks like Army’s most promising defensive back in years. As noted, keeping this group healthy and upright is absolutely mandatory. So is making opponents work: Army allowed 9.4 yards per attempt a season ago.
Special teams: No area speaks to Army’s lack of speed than the team’s woeful return game, an issue dating back to the 2008 season. With the Cadets looking for a boost, don’t be surprised if Moss and Jenkins – the two best athletes – handle the lion’s share of duties on punts and kickoffs. The kicking game remains intact: Alex Tardieu is back at punter and Daniel Grochowski at kicker. Both are serviceable.
POSITION(S) TO WATCH:
Quarterback: Army’s quarterback competition will resume in August with a third contender, senior Angel Santiago, who started last fall but did not participate in spring drills. Santiago’s absence could have a profound impact on Monken’s eventual decision: Army took a long look at both junior A.J. Schurr and sophomore Matthew Kauffman in the starting role, with the latter showing surprising poise at the controls of the first-team offense. While a nice surprise, Kauffman’s smaller size could be an issue in an offense that will continue to place its quarterback in the line of fire. Schurr, on the other hand, has the experience Monken might covet at the position but needs to move past his bouts with sloppiness – because Monken has shown an utter intolerance for turnovers. That neither Schurr nor Kauffman truly ran away with the position leaves Santiago well within striking distance of reclaiming the starting role. But the senior must prove to the new staff that he’s worthy of a leadership role on the offense.
GAME(S) TO WATCH:
Navy: The losing streak now dates back through three Presidential elections and twice as many coaches – in college football years, essentially spanning a generation. What was happening in the world of college football in 2001, when Army topped Navy to secure its last win in this series? For one, Texas Tech was going 7-5 behind quarterback Kliff Kingsbury, then a junior entering his second season as the starter. It’s been a while. Once again, the Cadets will have nearly a month to prepare for Navy.
SEASON BREAKDOWN & PREDICTION:
In a nutshell: Army has a steep hill to climb before beating Navy, let alone beating six teams and reaching bowl eligibility. In hindsight, the program’s last bowl run – way back in 2010 – was built on smoke, mirrors and the kindest schedule imaginable; that there was no foundation behind that postseason appearance was obvious during the ensuing three seasons, when Army reclaimed its spot among the nation’s underachievers. Bringing Army into this century will be a challenge: Monken has personnel and schematic issues to address, as do countless other first-year coaches, but the Cadets will be stuck in neutral until the new staff can instill a tough, physical, error-free mindset.
No more turnovers, please. No more quitting in the fourth quarter. More turnovers on defense. More pressure on the quarterback, more explosiveness downfield, more stops on first down; on offense, shorter conversions on third down. Roll the dice on offense; roll the dice on defense. Some of these can be addressed with simple coaching: Army can scheme around certain weaknesses, using the same blueprint Monken ran to such impressive results at Georgia Southern. But others are a matter of mentality – an area where Army needs a dramatic upgrade.
Three wins, maybe four. One isn’t coming against Navy; two are coming against the Football Championship Subdivision. The main goal, as with new coaches at other struggling programs, is to grow stronger each week even if the standings suggest otherwise. What’s funny is that Army looks good in some spots – running back is great and the secondary will improve, for example. But Monken has his hands full in 2014 and beyond in the effort to turn a program mired in a 17-year rut into a fairly consistent postseason participant. He’s off to a good start.
Dream season: Army beats Navy.
Nightmare season: Navy beats Army.
Who’s No. 117? This university’s basketball arena is named after a coach who won 67.1% of his games.
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