On Saturday, Ball State returns to the field for a showdown with Army as the Black Knights get to visit the booming metropolis of Muncie, Indiana and attempt to invade Scheumann Stadium. Each time BSU plays a service academy, and it has been frequent since I’ve covered the team, it puts OTP in sort of a weird situation. As anyone who regularly reads this site knows, from time to time, we like to veer our pregame festivities into the absurd and ridiculous with things like “Separated at Birth” or other tomfoolery at our opponents’ expense. When the Cards play a service academy though, that gets put on pause.
As someone with a considerable amount of family who have served, I would just feel a little queezy poking fun at the individuals who protect my ability and freedom to come on this blog and do just that. I am fairly certain that’s the exact definition of biting the hand that feeds you. With some opponents, I don’t feel bad at all. In fact, some opponents I almost feel like it’s my duty and responsibility to have a chuckle or two at their expense. The same sort of “Come back and bite you” karma may apply when we take our shots at Buffalo, but having my french fries overcooked or my change given incorrectly out of the drive thru is a chance I’m willing to take.
Some initial thoughts on the Black Knights…
- I’m a big proponent of trying to glean as much as possible from a team’s performance so far in the season. Granted, there is only one game to point to for Army, but the Black Knights were less than impressive against Morgan State. Only beating the FCS Bears 28-12 in their season-opener, I expected at least statistical dominance from Army which never really came. They were breaking in a new QB in Angel Santiago (who did account for 3 TDs on the ground) but it was far from the overwhelming rush total you’d expect when Army and their triple option take on an FCS school.
- Speaking of the triple option, for whatever reason, BSU seems to handle the funky throwback offensive scheme exceptionally well. Whether it be Navy or Army, BSU always pleasantly surprises me with how they don’t get thrashed and gashed. You’d expect a tricky offense to pregame for to create some headaches, but the Cards have been far better against the option than the spreads of CMU or NIU.
- The best way to create havoc for an option attack is to get penetration from the defensive line, which BSU showed against Illinois State it is very capable of. Army’s hamstrings of military physical fitness means you aren’t going to find a behemoth offensive line to have to navigate. What you are going to have to navigate is a pulling guard or tackle that is significantly quicker than said behemoths the D line will usually go up against. Army’s offensive line averages around 6’1″ and 250 pounds. Compare that with BSU’s defensive line (Newsome, Ollie, Cox, and Miles) and BSU has a size advantage at every position. That size advantage will ideally allow for penetration and chaos for the linebackers to play assignment football, critical for the option.
- The slow grind it out option also creates some issues for Army though, namely being an inability to come back from a significant deficit quickly and having a considerably higher risk of turnovers. In their first game, the Black Knights jumped out early to a 14-0 lead and showed how an early lead with an option team can be infuriating for opposing teams. Quite simply, your touches as an opposing offense are significantly limited to try to overcome that deficit. If they get down however, the reverse is true. The option attack (barring significant breakdowns from the defense) doesn’t usually result in quick scores or short drives. It’s a war of attrition. But that attrition comes with a high risk/reward. Anytime you have a first-year starter at the reigns of an offense predicated on reading defenses and making decisions and/or pitches, it can create issues for Army. They had one of the best in the business last year with Trent Steelman, and Angel Santiago certainly had a nice opener. But comparing the Morgan State defense to Ball State is like comparing baseball bats to watermelons.
- And speaking of that completely odd comparison, the same is true when comparing the grind it out option attack from Army and the Lembo spread from BSU. And with that difference in offensive attacks, Army’s defense leaves itself vulnerable to various issues. At its most basic core, the Army defense (known as a Flex package) allows for various players to shift around to best meet the needs of the defense. For example, a rover can drop down into the box to provide a bolstered run attack, or a defensive lineman can drop back into a linebacker type role to allow for better pass coverage from the secondary. For the BSU rushing game to be efficient, the offensive line needs to occupy the defensive tackles as best they can, which then means instead of a linebacker plugging a rushing lane, it’s essentially a defensive back that may not like what Jahwan Edwards will do to him. Same is also true for the underneath routes which may be covered by a defensive lineman rather than a linebacker in the slant routes or unders. On the backend of the defense is usually a single safety in a de facto cover 1 when multi-receiver sets are used, thus freeing up go routes in often times single coverage which makes Willie Snead even more dangerous than he already is. What kind of offenses benefit from this package? Teams that have a QB capable of solid decision making and an offensive coaching staff capable of schematic adjustments to exploit weaknesses and mismatches, which BSU does indeed have.
- The most important goal for BSU, outside of a victory, needs to be to escape the game relatively unscathed with the injury bug. Option attacks and their pulling offensive lineman, low blocks, etc. usually result in considerable dings, sprains, and tweaks and occasionally something far more drastic. Obviously a W is the most important goal week in and week out, but an exceptionally close second is not being the walking wounded before the first road trip of the season to North Texas next week.
- I am a huge supporter of BSU playing the service academies whenever possible, and think it’s one of the coolest road trips our student athletes will ever get to be a part of. When I was living outside Washington, DC I was fortunate to attend a few games at the Naval Academy and it never failed to leave me a little goosebump-y when the Midshipmen came marching in and took their place in the stands. People can talk all they want about “gameday experiences” at major programs like Clemson, Notre Dame, Virginia Tech, etc. and those are all amazing to be a part of, I’m sure. But watching the likes of Army come in is just on a whole different level. This year is a home game, but next year is on the road. If you get the chance to go, do it. You won’t regret it. ‘Merica.
Aside from the action on the field, I’ll also have my eyes on the stands on Saturday, as the fan turnout to me is one of the most interesting side stories of the game. After 16,000+ on opening night (but with a decent amount of ISU people) I’m curios if BSU can crack the 18k mark. To me, that’s a watershed type of number and should definitely be the goal. It’s not a special holiday weekend, a majority of the students went home last weekend for Labor Day, and the weather in Muncie appears to be good. 18k for Army and with a good chance of returning to Muncie on the 28th at 4-0 could yield crowds in excess of 20,000. And that’s a quite good thing. But it starts with the Black Knights on Saturday. Respectfully of course, as they are the future protectors of our freedoms, but I hope we smack that ass.