Winning 10 games, nearly beating Oklahoma, retaining the Commander-In-Chief’s Trophy, and beating Navy again all make the Armed Forces Bowl a celebration for Army rather than a high-pressure occasion. When a regular season checks all the right boxes and hits all the high notes in West Point, a bowl game should become an occasion to let loose and be bold.
Army WAS bold in last year’s Armed Forces Bowl against San Diego State… just not in the way people normally perceive boldness.
For a lot of human beings, being “bold” means throwing the ball all the time, using a no-huddle offense, and using all sorts of trick plays. For Army, though, a more adventurous and daring style of football is far removed from gunslingers and riverboat gamblers. For the Black Knights, a fearless form of football is refusing to pass, refusing to go no-huddle when trailing in the final minutes, and basically insisting on zigging where other teams zag.
In short, Army did this a year ago in the Armed Forces Bowl in Fort Worth.
The Black Knights threw only four passes against San Diego State. They allowed plenty of points and yards, especially to future first-round NFL Draft pick Rashaad Penny (who cracked the 200-yard mark for the fifth straight game that season), and they fell behind late, but they drove the ball down the field with one running play after another. They didn’t need to throw. They didn’t need to scramble. They patiently moved the ball when most teams would have panicked and adopted a Chinese fire drill model for a frenzied final possession.
Army drove down the field, scored a touchdown, scored the go-ahead 2-point try… and won. Army led 36-35 with 18 seconds left and added a defensive touchdown for a 42-35 final. The victory itself was special in its own right, but it was profoundly more meaningful because Army achieved that win in its own way. The victory was a refutation of the critics and a demonstration of the reality that Army could shape its own destiny on its own terms, not needing to bend or conform to the stylistic or methodology-based expectations of outsiders. It was — and is — the sweetest way to win: steadfastly adhering to your own preferred style and making it work, in spite of all the risks and limitations involved.
Let’s be honest: There is no good reason why Army can’t play this year’s Armed Forces Bowl the same basic way it played last year’s game against San Diego State.
The Houston Cougar defense which will oppose Army in this upcoming bowl has not been good this season. It was shredded by Memphis in its most recent game. Houston made a change at defensive coordinator in an attempt to reset the dial for 2019. The Cougars floundered on defense despite the presence of future NFL Draft pick Ed Oliver, who was sensational on an individual level but received hardly any support from his teammates. Army can definitely run the ball relentlessly against Houston. The physical confrontation should not be imposing. Houston coach Major Applewhite has struggled to get the best out of his team.
It is true that Jay Bateman (Army’s defensive coordinator), by leaving the Black Knights before this bowl battle, might leave Army’s defense in a weakened position. However, Army’s offense is well equipped to run, run, and run some more against Houston. Moreover, if Army wants to prevent UH from scoring a lot of points, what better approach to use on offense than an extreme ball-control approach rooted in regularly going for it on fourth down (as long as the distance to gain is reasonable, say five yards)? Army could play this game in such a way that it makes a genuine effort to never punt against Houston. That would be a way for the Black Knights to challenge themselves and turn this game into a deliciously fun experience.
It might seem careless or casual to some observers, but for Army, which has risen to a very lofty height under Jeff Monken’s leadership, the notion of never punting feels like a great way to honor not just this team’s achievements, but the steadiness and reliability in which the Black Knights won 10 games in 2018.
The only thing better than Army winning a bowl game last season to win a tenth game of the year would be for Army to win a bowl game this season and finish with 11 wins.
Running the ball with a purposeful stubbornness worked out just fine last year. Let’s see if Army is willing to repeat that formula — only with even more fearlessness — at this year’s Armed Forces Bowl.