Army West Point and Air Force both come into Saturday’s rivalry contest with the momentum of a winning streak. The Black Knights have won four games in a row and enter following a bye week. Bowl eligible after picking up win No. 6 with a 31-28 overtime victory over Temple in its last game, Army has already booked its ticket to the Armed Forces Bowl.
Air Force is riding high after an impressive 45-28 victory over Colorado State, which followed wins over UNLV and Nevada. The Falcons improved to 4-4 overall and 3-1 in the Mountain West, putting the team in position to challenge not only for a bowl bid, but also a Mountain Division title. However, because of its 48-45 loss to Navy last month, Air Force is in danger of losing the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy it won in 2016.
Army at Air Force
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 4 at 3:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS Sports Network
Spread: Air Force -6.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Discipline on defense
We would expect Army and Air Force to have two of the most disciplined football programs in the country. That discipline takes on added importance because both teams operate out of option offenses forcing opposing defenses to adhere to a specific set of roles, such as neutralizing the fullback dive, quarterback keep and pitch to a wing back during a running play. Both teams are very good at what they do offensively. The Black Knights rank second in the nation in rushing offense (362.1 yards per game), and the Falcons are close behind in third (350.4). Army ranks sixth nationally with an average of 6.2 yards per rushing attempt, and Air Force lands in the top 25 5.2 yards per carry.
Even though every team knows both Army and Air Force run the football an overwhelming percentage of the time, opposing defenses haven’t been disciplined enough to avoid giving up big plays. In fact, the Falcons have produced more 10-yard runs than another team in the country (93), including 10 runs of 30 yards or more (which is tied for 14th). Army has had 76 running plays of 10 yards or more (tied for fifth most in the country), including 15 runs of 30 yards or more (more than all but three FBS teams).
Both defenses also have struggled holding opposing rushing attacks in check. Army has allowed an average of 176.5 rushing yards per game this season, which ranks 76th nationally, and 5.5 yards per carry, which ranks 118th among 129 FBS teams. Air Force ranks 118th in rushing defense (231.9 ypg) and has surrendered 6.37 yards per carry — worst in the nation.
The quarterback is the key to both option attacks. Army’s Ahmad Bradshaw has completed just 10 of 35 pass attempts (28.6 percent) for 190 yards and one touchdown with two interceptions. However, Bradshaw is the driving force for the rushing attack and leads the team with 867 yards on 119 carries and ranks second with seven rushing touchdowns. Bradshaw has four 100-yard rushing games this season.
Air Force signal-caller Arion Worthman (above, right) has put up better passing numbers, completing half of his passes (38-for-76) for 830 yards and nine touchdowns with three interceptions, and is just as effective as a runner. Worthman leads the Falcons with 188 rushing attempts for 759 yards and 13 TDs (tied for most in the Mountain West), and has passed the century mark three times in the last four weeks.
3. Opportunities in the passing game
Not only will each defense need to stay discipline against the option, defensive backs must stay disciplined in pass coverage. Because of the nature of triple-option offenses, defenses can fall into a rhythm defending the run in which defensive backs get sucked up close to the line of scrimmage, leaving them susceptible to play-action passes.
Air Force has been particularly effective making big plays through the air, ranking third nationally with 10.9 yards per pass attempt. The Falcons also average 21.5 yards per completion, and have scored nine touchdowns through the air — or one score for roughly every five (4.7) completions. Of the 42 passes Air Force has completed this season, 10 have went for gains longer than 30 yards and six gained at least 50 yards. Army is at the other end of the spectrum in terms of yards per pass (4.8), which ranks second to last (128th) in the FBS. However, the Black Knights average a solid 16.6 yards per catch. Both defenses have surrendered 7.6 yards per pass this season, which ranks 90th in the country.
Teams coming in following a bye week generally have an advantage because they are more rested and able to spend extra time on the upcoming opponent. A team facing a unique offense, or specifically the triple option, would typically benefit due to the need to prepare for an offense it rarely sees. But as annual rivals, Army West Point and Air Force are already very familiar with one another, and the fact Army also runs an option offense (and the Army defense practices against that offense regularly) means the Black Knights don’t need the extra time to adequately prepare.
Both teams run the football well, and both have skilled quarterbacks pulling the strings of the rushing attack. Both also struggle to stop the run defensively. However, Air Force has a distinct advantage in the passing game. If the Falcons are able to establish the run to set up play action, we can expect one or two big pass plays to be the difference in the outcome.
Prediction: Air Force 31, Army 24
— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, a member of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.