The 2021 Army season featured several substantial achievements. A nine-win season is a terrific accomplishment, as is a bowl victory which included a comeback against Missouri in the Armed Forces Bowl.
Army defeated Air Force in an overtime Commander-In-Chief’s Trophy game. The Black Knights put up a great fight on the road in Madison against the Wisconsin Badgers, losing by only six points. Army scored 56 points against Wake Forest in another high-profile nonconference game. Jeff Monken’s team didn’t have many bad moments last season, but the stinging reality for the Black Knights is that one of their few stumbles, a moment when they fell short, was against Navy.
Army fans don’t want to relive this memory, but it’s unavoidable. It has to be brought up when an account of the 2021 season – setting the scene for 2022 – is presented in full. Army scored a touchdown on its first drive of the game against Navy and then didn’t score another touchdown for the rest of the game. Army got shut out in the second half. A 13-7 halftime lead turned into a crushing 17-13 loss. Army could have won the Commander-In-Chief’s Trophy outright for the second straight year. Instead, it had to share the hardware with its service academy brethren. Singing first, not second, is a defining aspect of a West Point football season, and of course, it’s not the outcome any Army team hopes for.
We are brought to the reality that Army’s offense is and has been susceptible to the clunker, the game in which offensive rhythm and efficiency can’t be established, let alone maintained, against Navy in particular and against the academies in general. Army’s offense didn’t have a good day at the ballyard (and it was a ballyard, the Texas Rangers’ home stadium) against Air Force, but the defense was magnificent against the Falcons in an overtime thriller. That same Army defense played well enough to win against Navy, but the offense’s inability to find a big play or a clutch drive led to that sinking feeling against the sailors from Annapolis.
Let’s stop for a moment and establish this next point, just to be clear: No, Army didn’t waste the performance of its defense in 2021. Not with the nine wins, not with the bowl victory, not with a share of the CIC Trophy. There were far too many accomplishments on Army’s plate to call 2021 a wasted season. We can acknowledge that and not drift into irresponsible (and negative) embellishment of this team’s flaws.
However, we can also say that a great season of Army defense was not maximized. Army’s defense played well enough to win at least 11 of the Black Knights’ 13 games, if not 12. Yet, Army won only nine.
Giving up 28 points to a not-that-good Ball State team wasn’t a great defensive effort, to be sure, but it remains that Army should have been able to hang 30 or more on the Cardinals. That 28-16 loss is equally shared between the offense and defense, so we can put that one into a separate category. Obviously, getting torched by a high-powered Wake Forest offense was the defense’s one bad day at the office in 2021.
The other 11 games? Army’s defense clearly played well enough to win.
You might point out that Army beat Western Kentucky 38-35 in Week 2 and claim that Army’s defense wasn’t really very good that day. At the time, maybe … but as the season progressed, that performance looked better and better.
The 2021 Western Kentucky team averaged 44.2 points per game, second in the country. Army held that offense nine points under its average. Bailey Zappe was incredible as WKU’s quarterback. He averaged 4.5 touchdown passes (not total touchdowns, but passing touchdowns in particular) per game. He threw for nearly 6,000 yards in 2021. Army did great to hold that offense to 35 points, and the offense did its job by scoring 38 against a weak Hilltopper defense.
In the 10 remaining games – other than Ball State, WKU, and Wake Forest – Army never did allow more than 22 points. The Black Knights held opponents under 20 points in a majority of their 13 games last season, pulling off the feat seven times. No, this defense’s prowess wasn’t wasted, but a 9-4 record instead of 10-3 or 11-2 – and not winning the CIC Trophy outright – certainly left something on the table.
Why? A clunker on offense kept this team from maxing out. The Black Knights were close to having a season which hit every realistic target; they fell short because the offense collapsed in the Ball State and Navy games.
Army football fans are well aware that Jeff Monken has authored some special moments in West Point football history specifically by refusing to throw the ball. Army went with an all-run offense – or something very close to it – and was still able to score late-game touchdowns, one memorable example coming in a bowl victory over San Diego State. The idea that opponents knew a run was coming and still couldn’t stop it is a point of pride for Monken and Army. The fan base absolutely loves those kinds of moments.
Yet, if you look at the 2021 season, the win over Air Force bizarrely turned into a game where both teams had more success passing the ball than running the ball. Partly by choice but also by necessity, Army threw the ball more in 2021 than it probably would have liked, but it’s instructive to note that Army didn’t completely trip over its shoelaces when it tried to pass the ball last year.
It might seem like defeatism (almost) for a service-academy team to admit in modern times that it has to throw the ball more. However, if Army’s offense wants to avoid a sand trap – especially against Navy or Air Force – it can use a better downfield passing game and a better situational (3rd and 5) passing attack. This obviously doesn’t mean scrapping the triple option, but it does mean developing capability and capacity in the passing game to give the offense the extra measure of versatility which can turn that clunker into a narrow win. A 17-13 or 14-10 loss can become a 20-17 triumph.
Army’s floor in 2021 was generally high, but when the offense bottomed out, it cost the Black Knights against the one team (Navy) they want to beat more than any other. Motivation will be high in West Point this season, but merely wanting to win isn’t a plan. Having more resources and avenues to win games? That’s a plan. We’ll see what Jeff Monken does this fall.