There may not be a better representation of college football matters so much to so many than the annual Army vs. Navy game. The Army-Navy game always stays in the moment. Saturday's 119th renewal, at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, should be no different with the usual pomp and circumstance, and the expected presence of President Donald Trump.
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The Black Knights are ranked in the Top 25 for the first time since 1996 thanks mostly to a ground attack that produces 303 yards per game - second in the nation only to Georgia Tech's 334.9 - and an average time of possession of 39 minutes, 15 seconds that leads the country by a wide margin. The Midshipmen, who have lost 12 straight away from home, boast the No. 3 rushing game nationally at 288.5 yards but defensive struggles have sunk their season to lows not seen since a two-win campaign in 2002. Saturday's game will likely come down to who can stop the run and Army appears to have the edge, boasting the No. 12 rush defense at 106.5 yards compared to Navy's 89th-best unit (189.0). A victory by the Black Knights would give them back-to-back outright Commander-in-Chief's trophies for the first time in Academy history.
Part of the issue this season has been the revolving door at the quarterback position with senior Zach Abey, junior Malcolm Perry and senior Garret Lewis all seeing time under center, combining for 866 yards, five touchdowns and three interceptions while competing 44.1 percent of their passes. Abey, who began the season at wide receiver after playing QB most of last season, is the goal-line specialist with 14 rushing touchdowns while Perry (1,035 yards, seven TDs) possesses breakaway speed as evidenced by his 68-yard TD run against Army last season. The Midshipmen are second nationally in fewest penalties (3.58) and penalty yardage (30 per game), marking the 10th time in 11 seasons they have finished first or second in the country in those categories.
Senior running back Darnell Woolfork (823 yards, 14 touchdowns) and junior quarterback Kelvin Hopkins Jr. (783 yards, 10 TDs) lead the dominant rushing attack behind an outstanding line. “We believe that our success on offense starts with us,” senior center Bryce Holland told reporters. “It’s extremely important for us to do our job and impose our will because if we don’t do that, we’re not setting our teammates up for success.” Hopkins has also thrown for 895 yards with six TDs and three interceptions, adding another dimension to a team that passed for only 361 yards with two TDs and six interceptions last season.
So here’s the main difference between the two teams that run the option offense and rely on controlling games, the tempo, and the clock – Army is better on third downs, and it actually does control games, the tempo, and the clock.
The running game is deadly precise, finishing second in the nation behind Georgia Tech’s attack running for 303 yards per game while during a brilliant job at keeping the chains moving, leading the nation converting 57% of its chances.
It’s not that complicated. Run the ball like Army does, dominate on third downs, and hold the ball for a nation-leading 39:15. Do that, have a fresher defense, and then that group of obviously more effective.
The smart money is on Bradshaw’s backup from a year ago, junior Kelvin Hopkins Jr. Hopkins has the most experience and knows the playbook. Despite limited playing time last season, Hopkins was thrust into action against Temple and led Army to an improbable overtime win against the Owls, thanks to his ability to move the offense with his arm. With 91 seconds left against Temple, Hopkins drove Army down the field, capping a 14-play 79-yard drive with a 16-yard touchdown pass to Jermaine Adams, tying the game up 28-28 with one second left.
Hopkins will be pushed by sophomores Cam Thomas and Christian Anderson. Whoever wins the job will receive plenty of support, thanks to the return of Army’s top seven rushers behind Bradshaw last year, led by fullback Darnell Woolfolk (on the preseason watch list for the Walter Camp and Maxwell Awards). Running back Kell Walker is the most explosive member of the Black Knights’ offensive backfield and saw snaps at quarterback in spring practice. It’ll be interesting to see how Monken utilizes the big-play junior.Perry suffered a foot injury early in the third quarter of Navy’s 49-7 whipping of Virginia in the Military Bowl and was hampered in spring practice while still recovering. Abey took over for Perry and went on to be named MVP of the bowl game after rushing for 88 yards and five touchdowns.
Niumatalolo said during American Athletic Conference media days last month that he expects to play multiple quarterbacks, which will also likely include senior Garret Lewis. With Perry, Abey and even Lewis in short-yardage situations, Niumatalolo and offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper have plenty of options to keep foes guessing.