The Army West Point Black Knights host the Rice Owls Friday night to open the 2019 season. Army is still riding high following a historic 2018, which was capped by an incredible 70-14 shellacking of Houston in the Armed Forces Bowl that tied the all-time record for points in a postseason game. The blowout victory pushed the Cadets to 11-2 overall, which set a new program record for wins. Head coach Jeff Monken now has three straight winning campaigns, including back-to-back seasons with double-digit wins.
Oh, and best of all for Army supporters, the Black Knights picked up a 17-10 win over Navy — the third straight victory over their archrivals — to secure sole possession of the Commander-In-Chief's Trophy for the second straight year.
Rice had much less to celebrate. The Owls ended on a high note with a 27-13 upset victory over Old Dominion in the season finale. However, the first year of head coach Mike Bloomgren’s tenure ended with a 2-11 record, including a 1-7 mark in Conference USA play and an 11-game losing streak.
Rice at Army
Kickoff: Friday, Aug. 30, at 6 p.m.
TV: CBS Sports Network
Spread: Army -22.5
When Rice Has the Ball
Head coach Mike Bloomgren has continued to rebuild his roster. Four grad transfers (including center Brian Chaffin and fullback Reagan Williams, who followed Bloomgren from Stanford) were listed as starters on the Week 1 depth chart. But redshirt freshman Wiley Green beat out Harvard transfer quarterback Tom Stewart to start against Army. Green made four appearances and three starts in 2018, including the win against ODU. He threw for 621 yards with three touchdowns and four interceptions, adding 34 rushing yards and two scores.
Receiver Aaron Cephus, who led the squad with five touchdown catches in 2018, was suspended indefinitely this spring. But leading receiver Austin Trammel returns and junior college transfer Brad Rozner joins to bolster the unit. Diminutive senior running back Astin Walter is also poised to improve on his 564 rushing yards and four TDs from last season.
Rice will have its hands full with an Army defense that ranked in the top 10 nationally in scoring defense (17.7 ppg), rushing defense (106.8 ypg) and total defense (295.5 ypg). Of course, some of that success stems from the Black Knights' ball-control offense. Army surrendered 5.6 yards per play last season, which ranked 59th in the country. The Cadets were particularly susceptible to the pass, surrendering 7.5 yards through the air per attempt, which tied for 78th.
Army returns four starters on defense. Three – Elijah Riley, Javhari Bourdeau and Jaylon McClinton – are defensive backs, plus linebacker Cole Christiansen. Christiansen, Riley and McClinton ranked second, third and fourth on the team in tackles last year, respectively.
When Army Has the Ball
The Army offense welcomes back seven starters from a unit that ranked second in the country in rushing offense (312.5 ypg). The Black Knights are led by senior quarterback Kelvin Hopkins Jr., who ran for 1,017 yards and 17 touchdowns while throwing for 1,026 yards and six scores. Hopkins and running back Kell Walker, who gained 320 rushing yards on 50 carries last season and has more than 1,200 career rushing yards, will run behind an experienced offensive line.
Run defense was the strength of the Rice defense a year ago, and the unit earned heavy praise from Bloomgren for its performance this spring. Four starters return at linebacker, but two of three starters must be replaced on the line and two newcomers enter a secondary that ranked No. 125 in pass defense (280.1 ypg) last season.
Mike Bloomgren was the offensive coordinator at Stanford from 2013-17 and has molded Rice into a similar offense that utilizes tight ends and even a rarely spotted fullback into his pro-style attack. The results were mixed in 2018. Though Rice improved its scoring output by 2.6 points per game. The Owls ranked No. 124 nationally in scoring (18.9 ppg), No. 98 nationally with an average of 143.6 rushing yards per game, and actually saw its yards per carry average dip from 4.6 to 3.8 (which ranked 102nd nationally).
The Owls also regressed in yards per play from 5.4 to 4.8, which sat 122nd on the national leaderboard. But Wiley Green gained valuable experience while also reserving an extra year of eligibility, and the offense has a few playmakers and better depth.
Army lost defensive coordinator Jay Bateman to North Carolina. However, John Loose was promoted to the full-time DC role after he served in an interim capacity during the bowl game. Loose is very experienced as a defensive play-caller, having held the position a total of 17 years during his career. It should be a smooth transition for the Cadets, and with Kelvin Hopkins Jr. leading the charge on offense, Army is in position to win double-digit games again.
Expect the Black Knights get win No. 1 Friday, but because both offenses operate at a slow pace, the Owls could keep the score close early.