Game 1 preview: Army Black Knights
Army, also EMU’s opening opponent last fall, returns to Rynearson with a second-year coach looking to prove that he belongs (sound familiar?). The difference is that while Rich Ellerson is in his second year at Army, he also has 9 years of prior head coaching experience, during which he led California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly) to 3 Great West Conference championships. Ellerson’s career record as a head coach is 65-48.
Record (2009): 5-7
Quality wins (2009): None. Really. Army’s 5 wins came over 0-12 EMU, 2-10 Ball State, 2-10 Vanderbilt, 2-10 North Texas, and FCS team VMI. The only win by more than 7 points was the opener at EMU. Vanderbilt took them into overtime at West Point. Some people say you shouldn’t sneer when you’re coming off an 0-12 season, but my response to them is: I know bad football.
Embarrassing losses (2009): A 16-point home loss to 5-7 Duke, a 1-point home loss to 3-9 Tulane, a 28-point loss at Air Force (game was tied at halftime).
Last meeting: 2009. Army won 27-14 in the season opener at Rynearson Stadium last fall.
All-time series: EMU is 0-3; the Black Knights have downed the Eagles in 1992 (57-17 — ouch!), 2008 (17-13), and 2009.
Offense: Triple option and run, run, run. In this game last year, Army ran 49 times and only passed 5 times, and there’s no reason to expect anything different. Army has always been a run-first team, and Ellerson has always been a run-first coach. If EMU is to have a chance in this game, they must improve last season’s appallingly bad rushing defense.
Defense: Army is one of only 13 FBS teams using a 3-4 as their base defense this season. A few more use a 3-3-5 (this fall, Michigan is switching to the 33 Stack, of which RichRod is a long-time fan), but in total, fewer than 1/6 of teams use an odd-front defense; this is only such team EMU will face in 2010. A 3-4 defense normally requires a huge nose tackle — according to Joe Collier this is the most important position in a 3-4 scheme — often weighing 330 pounds or more, with long arms. A 3-4 NT is often considered the most physically demanding position in football, because he has to control both “A” gaps between the center and guards. I’m not quite sure how Army makes this work, because the heaviest player I could find listed on their roster is sophomore A.J. Mackey, at 6’1″ and 266 pounds. By comparison, the Eagles list at least 6 defenders at more than 270 pounds. Four linebackers and four defensive backs will make for some difficult reads for an inexperienced EMU quarterback, whether it’s Gillette or Payne, so I’d expect EMU to lean heavily on the running game.
At the beginning of last fall, hopes were high in Eagle Nation. We had Andy Schmitt returning as a fifth-year senior quarterback to lead the team. We had Ron English, who had seen success as a defensive coordinator at Michigan and who seemed to be saying and doing all the right things. An indoor practice facility was in the works. 14,499 fans came to the opening game. Things were going well.
Then the Army Black Knights came to town, the game started, and we got a dose of reality.
So, what went wrong in this game last year?
In many ways it was a microcosm of the entire failed season. The Black Knights ran all over the Eagles, rushing 49 times for 300 yards, an average of 6.1 yards per carry. When you can get that kind of production on the ground, there’s no need to pass, and Army didn’t; quarterback Trent Steelman was a whopping 2 of 5 for 8 yards. Yes, that was Army’s total passing offense for the entire game! That’s the kind of stat line that resulted in the 2009 Eagles having the worst rushing defense in the country, and appearing statistically to have one of the best passing defenses.
Meanwhile, the Eastern Michigan offense struggled to overcome 3 turnovers and a 13 point halftime deficit. Schmidt was 18 of 31 for 183 yards and a touchdown, and the Eagles closed within 6 points early in the fourth quarter, but in the end it just wasn’t quite enough. A slightly stouter defense or a slightly more effective offense might have been able to close the deal, but EMU had neither. The final margin of 13 points was the Eagles’ 5th closest loss of the season, and much better than their average margin of -21.8.
The Army Black Knights went on to finish with a 5-7 record, no real quality wins (but they did have wins, which is more than Eastern Michigan managed), and several embarrassing losses. In the offseason, Army struggled in recruiting (even more than EMU), because most 18-year-olds would rather take a chance at earning millions of dollars in the NFL than take a chance at being deployed to Fallujah, and I can’t say I blame them. Rivals rated Army 117th in their 2010 recruiting class, but that was based partly on the size of their class; based purely on quality they were easily the worst, with an average star ranking of 1.19. (In fact, the three service academies were all in the bottom 5 in this ranking, probably for the aforementioned reason.) Army’s only 3-star recruit, running back Larry Dixon, will probably be well back in the depth chart — possibly red-shirted — since the Black Knights have 8 returning running backs. That includes three seniors, Patrick Mealy, Kingsley Ehie, and Jameson Carter, who finished 2009 second, third, and fourth (behind returning quarterback Trent Steelman) in ground production for Army. Since Army had no passing to speak of against the Eagles, an analysis of how the passing game has changed seems largely immaterial.
So when Army comes to town Saturday evening, it will be basically the same squad that beat the Eagles by 13 points last year, only they’ll have a year more of experience and conditioning.
Ordinarily, I’d say that bodes poorly for Eastern Michigan, but there are a few factors in the Eagles’ favor.
The offensive line gave up 6 sacks — 24% of the sacks for the year, and 32.5% of yards lost in sacks for the year came in that one game. The Eagles were also -2 in turnover margin for the game, and -1 for the entire rest of the season. So from those two standpoints, that was an exceptionally bad game for EMU.
Prediction: Accuscore says:
Army is a heavy favorite winning 78% of simulations over Eastern Michigan. Trent Steelman is averaging 75 passing yards and 0.56 TDs per simulation and Trent Steelman is projected for 123 rushing yards and a 75% chance of having at least 1 rushing TD. In the 22% of simulations where Eastern Michigan wins, Alex Gillett averages 1.4 TD passes vs 1.11 interceptions, while in losses he has a ratio of 0.68 TDs to 1.31 interceptions. Dwayne Priest averages 94 rushing yards and 1.09 rushing TDs when Eastern Michigan wins and 83 yards and 0.52 TDs in losses. Army has a 52% chance of forcing more turnovers than they commit. Positive turnover margin helps them win 84% of the time.
If my math is right, I extrapolate from that prediction a 71% win probability if EMU manages a non-negative turnover margin. Personally, I don’t think we’ll see that much passing, and a lot of running from both teams will make for a short game that will be nearly over by 9 pm. Based on last year you’d expect a comfortable Army win — say, 31-17 — but Ron English has really overhauled his team in the off-season, and no one is quite sure how good or bad the 2010 Eagles squad will be, so I’ll give EMU about a 45% chance of winning this one. Final score, 21-17 Army, but call it about ±11 on each team’s score, so we could end up anywhere from a 28-10 Eagles win to a 31-7 Army blowout.