Army did what good teams do on Saturday, beating an Eastern Michigan team that is better than most people think 37-22. Next up for the Black Knights is a clash with Air Force, with Army knowing that a win against the Falcons would secure the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy for the second consecutive year.
Here are the three keys:
Win the rushing battle
The first key in any service academy battle is to win the battle on the ground. This means both that the Army offense must get its triple-option moving, while the defense must find a way to slow down Air Force and make the Falcons own triple-option attack a non-factor.
Army is second in the nation in rushing (behind Georgia Tech) and the Black Knights average almost 315 yards per game on the ground. Air Force has not been quite as consistent as usual in 2018, with the Falcons ranking No. 8 in the country in rushing yards per game with 255.5 yards per game. Army knows what Air Force likes to do to move the ball, with the same being true in reverse.
The Air Force quarterback situation is a bit of a mess, but Isaiah Sanders is likely to be the guy getting the keys to the offense against Army. His combination with running back Cole Fagan is one that the Black Knights need to key on and stop early in the game.
Win the big play battle
The second big battle in a clash of option teams is to win the amount of big plays.
Neither Army nor Air Force has much of a passing attack. The Black Knights rank 127th in the country in passing at 91.4 yards per game, while the Falcons are slightly better at 123rd in the country with 137.5 yards per game.
What makes these passing attacks unique is that so few of the passing plays are designed to pick up small yardage gains. These are passing attacks that like and die by the big play. Army has been a better team in 2018 because the big passing play is back. In 2017 the Black Knights passed for two touchdowns, while in 2018 they already have six. They also rank third in the country in yards per pass attempt at 10.8.
Army needs to his a couple of big passing plays, in addition to some runs of 15+ yards, while holding Air Force below their number in these two key categories.
Dominate on third down
The biggest statistical discrepancy between the two teams lies on third down.
Army is hitting on almost 54% of its third down attempts, showing that the Black Knights are moving the ball on first and second down regularly. They are third in the nation on third down. Air Force, on the other hand, ranks 84th in third down conversion percentage, at just under 38% on the year. This shows that they are not being as productive with their option on first and second down, leaving them in too many third and long situations.
When you also factor in that Army only allows opponents to convert on 27% of their third down tries (a number good for sixth in the nation) then you can see how this is a key firmly in the Black Knights favor.