This one’s been circled on the calendar for months. Maybe more of a tepid oval, actually. It’s not the same anticipation as an Ohio State or Notre Dame game, but one born more of curiosity. Don Brown and his defense have been preparing for Army’s notorious triple-option look for months now. The Black Knights will come into Michigan Stadium on Saturday an experienced group, coming off an 11-win season and a season-opening 14-7 win over Rice.
After reviewing the tape, though, Michigan might be able to identify a few unexpected weak spots. Here are five thoughts from Army's win last weekend and how the Wolverines might approach the matchup with that in mind.
Is Army who we thought they were?
Not to channel an inner Dennis Green, but there were a few uncharacteristic elements in Army’s performance last week. This is a team that returned a majority of its starters from an 11-win group in 2018. The Black Knights will likely be favored in every game this year except the Michigan game. Their quarterback, Kelvin Hopkins Jr., comes back after a 2018 in which he posted 1,000-plus yards rushing and passing for the first time in school history.
There were plenty of preseason grumblings about the treachery this game might pose.
But Army left plenty to be desired in an uninspiring performance on both sides of the ball. Their normally-potent triple-option attack was largely held at bay, totaling 231 yards on 56 carries (4.1 yards per carry) against a defense that finished 112th in the nation (of 130) in 2018. That was nearly 100 yards shy of last year’s season average. Defensive coaches frequently preach discipline when defending triple option. Don’t overcommit. Fill your gap. Stay patient.
By and large, Rice did a good job with that. Startlingly well, in fact. For the Black Knights, much of that stemmed from their difficulty to secure blocking on the edge. In this clip, count the number of whiffs or partial blocks at or near the line.
This was no one-off occurrence, either. If Army’s offensive line has trouble squaring up Rice’s edge guys, Khaleke Hudson, Josh Uche, Josh Ross and co. will surely make things far more difficult.
For Army, and the triple-option writ large, it’s less about the chunk plays (though they obviously help). More vital is securing forward movement on every play, reaching a manageable down and distance and chewing up clock. When first and second down don’t go according to plan, well, third down rarely follows suit, either.
Because when its offense comes up against an obvious passing down…
…that doesn’t usually portend success.
Big game for the interior defensive line and linebackers
Defensive line coach Shaun Nua said on Wednesday that defensive linemen Donovan Jeter and Michael Dwumfour were both “ready to go”. That’s important news regardless, but especially so given the strain Army is going to try to put on the Wolverines’ interior. Despite its week one struggles, this is still an offense that can give you fits. And especially given the high frequency of snaps the Black Knights will run, having a full breadth of defensive linemen available will be crucial.
For all the negatives, Army still put some good stuff on tape. Watch the movement at the line of scrimmage here. The Rice defensive line gets pushed several yards immediately after the snap. They don’t have a prayer. Given Michigan’s questions on the interior of the defensive line, that should be the primary worry coming into the weekend.
Expect the full rotation to see time — Dwumfour, Jeter, senior Carlo Kemp, freshman Chris Hinton and junior Ben Mason. Perhaps this might be the week for freshman Mazi Smith to see the field as well, if only to spell the aforementioned.
If any player asserts himself among the group Saturday, that could open an avenue for more playing time in run downs going forward.
Defense struggled at times
Far from the most prolific attack, Rice had plenty of success gouging Army’s defense, particularly on the ground.
Here is one example, among many, in which the Owls and their running back duo ran rampant on Army’s porous front. Nashon Ellerbe and Aston Water combined for 175 on 27 carries on the day.
Here’s another instance in which Rice gets easy push in the run game, opening up avenues to exploit. It seems like a heavy dose of Zach Charbonnet and Christian Turner will be in the offing Saturday afternoon.
Much of the conversation around this game centers around the other side of the ball, that’s the natural tendency when a triple-option side comes to town. But it’s hard to see the Wolverines’ offense being bothered much by the group it’s facing. Army’s best defense this week might be its offense — and whether it can control enough clock to keep Shea Patterson and co. off the field.
They will have tricks up their sleeves
One of Army’s biggest plays of the game last week came on some trickeration — a reverse to wide receiver Christian Hayes for 35 yards on third and nine. This is a pretty simple counter off a normal speed option look, and yet you can see how far the Rice defender over-pursues, leaving the back end wide open.
If they had it in the bag for Rice, there’s surely more where that came from this weekend. Lock it in.
Don’t let things stay close late
The real weapon of the triple option comes through the repetition. When it works, the excess of possession not only allows for infinite counters off the standard looks — as seen in some of the trickeration — but also an immeasurable impact on the opposing team’s stamina and wherewithal. It’s like a boxer that jabs and jabs and jabs, goes 11 rounds and wins by decision. The opponent leaves helpless.
The worst thing the Wolverines could do this week is let Army hang around until the fourth quarter. That could spell doom for a depleted defense.
Last week, the two deadlocked at 7-7 in the fourth quarter, the Black Knights turned in a vintage 18-play, 96-yard drive that took up 9:21. This is the kind of push they were getting on that drive.
It ended in this 17-yard touchdown pass, and that was that.
Frankly, if Michigan has its ‘A’ game, this shouldn’t be much of a game. But if it falls short of that, letting Army poke, prod and hang around, there’s a nightmare scenario that features a similar ending. There’s a reason Michigan’s staff has been preparing for this unique challenge for several months. Saturday, we’ll find out how ready they are.