Army and San Diego State meet on Saturday in the Armed Forces Bowl in a clash of two of the nation’s top rushing attacks. The Black Knights enter the bowl matchup ranked first nationally in rushing offense, and the Aztecs check in at No. 11. While both teams bring run-first matchups to Fort Worth, the method of attack is a little different. Army thrives behind its option attack, with San Diego State utilizing power in the trenches and a run of standout running backs to lead the way on offense.
Under fourth-year coach Jeff Monken, Army has won 17 games over the last two seasons. That’s the most in a two-year span by the Black Knights since 1984-85. Monken inherited a program that won just five games from 2012-13 but has brought steady improvement since a 6-18 start. In addition to the win total and back-to-back bowl appearances, Monken has also delivered two victories in a row against Navy. The Black Knights started 2017 with a convincing win over Fordham in the opener and knocked off Buffalo before losses against Ohio State and Tulane. However, Army won seven out of its last eight games, with the only defeat coming at North Texas (52-49).
With a fertile recruiting area at its disposal, San Diego State’s football program has been considered a sleeping giant. But with Rocky Long leading the way, the Aztecs have managed to realize some of their potential. San Diego State is 64-28 since Long took over in 2011 and claimed back-to-back Mountain West titles in 2015-16. The Aztecs have posted three consecutive double-digit win seasons, nearly surpassing the total (four) from 1969-2014. Long’s 2017 team picked up wins over two Power 5 opponents – Arizona State and Stanford – but a 27-3 defeat against Fresno State prevented San Diego State from another shot at the Mountain West title.
This is the third meeting between San Diego State and Army on the gridiron. The Aztecs have won both previous meetings, including a 42-7 victory in 2012.
Armed Forces Bowl: San Diego State (10-2) vs. Army (9-3)
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 23 at 3:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: San Diego State -6.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Army’s Option Offense
Army’s gameplan on offense certainly won’t surprise San Diego State. The Black Knights intend to run and throw as little as possible. Monken’s offense averaged 58.2 rushing attempts a game, led the nation with 355.8 rushing yards a contest and scored 45 times on the ground. Just how much of an afterthought is the passing attack? Army did not attempt a pass in the win against Air Force and completed just one throw against Navy, Duke, North Texas and Rice. The Black Knights also went four games without completing a pass this year and connected on just 19 of 61 overall throws.
While the overall structure and gameplan won’t catch San Diego State off guard, defending the option attack isn’t easy. The Aztecs will have an advantage of extra time to prepare, as well as some previous experience from playing another option team (Air Force) earlier in 2017. However, it may take a series or two to adjust to Army's scheme and game speed. The Aztecs finished the regular season ranked first in the Mountain West in rush defense, limiting opponents to just 110.8 yards a game on the ground. Each of San Diego State’s last four opponents did not reach 100 rushing yards, and this unit has not allowed a rushing score since Oct. 28.
Monken’s offense features three players with at least 100 carries and four with more than 500 rushing yards in 2017. Quarterback Ahmad Bradshaw has received the bulk of the workload, posting 1,566 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns on 210 attempts. Bradshaw is also averaging 7.5 yards per carry. He’s joined by fullback Darnell Woolfolk (725 yards and 12 TDs), A-back Kell Walker (592 yards) and Andy Davidson (546 yards) as key contributors in the backfield. Expect Bradshaw to handle 20-25 attempts, with Woolfolk likely to handle around 15-20. Can this offense continue to churn out the yardage on the ground against a standout defense? This is likely to be Army’s toughest test on the ground since playing Ohio State on Sept. 16. San Diego State has to keep the Black Knights in long-yardage situations and create negative plays in the backfield.
2. San Diego State RB Rashaad Penny
San Diego State’s Rashaad Penny is the latest name in a run of standout running backs for Long. The Aztecs have produced a 1,000-yard rusher in each of Long’s seven years at the helm, with the program’s overall streak at eight seasons. This run has produced standout rushers like Ronnie Hillman, Adam Muema, Donnel Pumphrey and now Penny. After spending the last three years as a backup, Penny stepped into the starting role this season and posted 2,027 yards and 19 touchdowns on just 275 attempts. The senior also posted 10 rushes of 40 yards or more and averaged a whopping 7.4 yards a carry.
Penny is poised to do most of his damage on the ground, but the senior is also one of the nation’s top all-purpose performers. He caught 18 passes for 142 yards and two touchdowns, returned a punt for a score and averaged 30.6 yards (with two touchdowns) on 15 kickoff returns. The all-around versatility of Penny makes him one of college football’s top playmakers and certainly didn’t hurt his case for Heisman consideration.
Penny isn’t the only back in the stable for Long and coordinator Jeff Horton. When the senior needs a break, Juwan Washington (715 yards) is more than capable of handling the workload.
Army’s rush defense is going to have its hands full on Saturday. The Black Knights are giving up 4.96 yards a carry and surrendered 166.1 yards a game in 2017. This defense hasn’t had a ton of success at getting into the backfield and creating havoc plays. Army ranks 125th nationally in tackles for a loss, generating 49 through 12 regular season contests. Linebacker Alex Aukerman (14.5 TFL) has been a force around the line of scrimmage and will be counted upon even more this Saturday.
After being held under 100 yards against Fresno State and Boise State, Penny has not rushed for less than 200 yards in each of his last four games. Will Army find ways to slow Penny down and win the battle in the trenches against a physical San Diego State offensive line? Or will the Aztecs impose their will against a smaller defensive front, allowing Penny to close out his collegiate career with another 200-yard performance.
3. Turnovers and Timely Passing
Both teams are going to land their share of big plays and produce enough successful carries to keep the offense out of third-and-long situations all night. With that in mind, this game could come down to the turnover battle and whichever team is able to connect on timely throws.
On paper, San Diego State would seem to have an advantage in both areas. The Aztecs are plus-eight in the turnover margin, with the Black Knights checking in at plus-four. However, Army has only lost nine turnovers, compared to 11 for San Diego State.
As mentioned previously, Army doesn’t throw it often. San Diego State has only 242 pass attempts this season, but the coaching staff hasn’t asked a lot of quarterback Christian Chapman (and he hasn’t had to do much with Penny leading the way). However, Chapman has been steady under center for Long. He’s completed 60.1 percent of his throws for 13 touchdowns and 1,848 passing yards. When Chapman throws, Mikah Holder (43 catches), Fred Trevillion (32.6 ypc) and Kahale Warring (18 grabs) are the key targets to watch.
If you like rushing offenses, then this bowl is a must-see matchup. Additionally, the Armed Forces Bowl also features one of college football’s top individual talents in San Diego State running back Rashaad Penny in his first game with the Aztecs. Penny’s all-around versatility is going to be a tough matchup for an Army defense that is prone to giving up some yardage on the ground. And if Penny gets on track, Chapman and his receiving corps will connect on a few play-action bombs downfield. When the Black Knights have the ball, this offense needs to chew up the clock, limit the turnovers and stay out of third-and-long situations. Bradshaw can certainly carry Army to a win, but the extra time to prepare will be huge for San Diego State’s defense. Penny and the Aztecs’ defense are the difference in this game.