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December 10, 2013

Army vs Navy: Going Beyond the Records





It's that time of year again, when Army and Navy face each other in what CBS likes to call "America's Game." Navy comes into the game with a 7-4 record, and a bowl bid in hand, while Army limps into the contest with a 3-8 record and a season filled with disappointments. But as we all know, records do not always tell the whole story; so it's time to look past the W/L records and take a closer look at how the two teams stack up.

Evaluating comparative records and statistics is somewhat risky, because it does not take into account things like injuries and the relative strengths of the competition. The Army team has been plagued by injuries to key players all season, while Navy has survived relatively intact. This is particularly true on defense, where Army has only one player, Tolbert, who has started all 11 games and only 5 starters who have been available to play in all 11 games, while Navy defense has 7 players who have started all 11 games and only two who have not been available for play in all 11 games. The most significant loss Navy has had in their defensive unit this season is the NG Bernard Sarra, while Army lost the services of its two leading tacklers, Geoffery Bacon and Thomas Holloway for 4 games each and has had 4 different players start at MLB this season due to losses and three different starters at Quick End. Hayden Pierce has had to fill in at 3 different positions on defense this year .

Army has had somewhat better luck at keeping its offense intact with 8 of it's 11 starters having started all 11 games, but the loss of last year's leading rusher Raymond Maples after the third game, second leading rusher, Larry Dixon for 3 games, backup fullback Hayden Tippett for 4 games and backup quarterback A.J. Schurr for 5 games have put a crimp in Army's offense. Navy's biggest losses on offense have been a couple of starters on their offensive line, but they did not fare well when quarterback Keenan Reynolds was knocked out early in the WKU game.

Another factor to keep in mind when evaluating past season performance is that Army and Navy are more like each other than any of the opponents they face, with the possible exception of Air Force. They both run essentially the same version of the triple option; so their defenses have lots of practice playing against the TO. The size and speed disparities that they usually encounter are minimized; so the statistics that each compiled against larger and faster teams are not as meaningful. With that in mind, let's compare the two teams head to head.

Army Offense versus Navy Defense

Army enters the game ranked #1 in the country in Rushing (324 YPG), dead last in passing (80 YPG), and 69th in Total Offense (403 YPG). Navy's defense ranks 87th in Rushing Defense (188.7 YPG), 66th in Pass Defense (231 YPG) and 84th in Total Defense (419 YPG).

Army comes into the game missing the services of Maples and Dixon, and the absence of those two top performers puts a heavy burden on this season's leading rusher, Terry Baggett. No doubt, Navy will key on stopping Baggett, and Army's success may depend on two factors.

The first of these is the status of Tippett, the normal backup to Dixon at fullback. The first option of the triple option is the handoff to the fullback, and Dixon was a force that could not be ignored. Tippett does not pose the breakaway threat that Dixon does, but he has shown that he can produce needed yards in key situations significantly better than Matt Giachinta who has started the last two games. With Tippett in the game, Navy will have to devote more resources to stopping the FB dive.

The second key factor is which quarterback will get the nod. Angel Santiago has started all 11 games this year, while the backup Schurr was sidelined 5 games with a high ankle sprain. Schurr replaced Santiago in the second half of the Hawaii game and sparked a rally that overcame a 21 point deficit to tie the game at 28-28 before Hawaii pulled ahead for good. Santiago is the more reliable ball handler, while Schurr is the better passing quarterback and looked better at finding holes on the quarterback keeper against Hawaii. Navy will have to prepare for both possibilities. No matter which quarterback gets the starting nod, look for the other to step in if the offense sputters.

Guys who might surprise: Joey Giovanelli is a late bloomer who has impressed in the past few games and could be a significant factor if Navy keys too much on Baggett. Moss could have a good day receiving, and watch for Baggett and Giovanelli as potential receivers coming out of the backfield.

Slight Advantage Army

Navy Offense versus Army Defense

Navy enters the game ranked 3d in Rushing Offense (320 YPG), second to last in Pass Offense (99 YPG) and 62d in Total Offense (419 YPG). Army counters with a Rushing Defense ranked 99th (202 YPG), a Pass Defense ranked 34th (215 YPG) and a Total Defense ranked 77th (416 YPG). On paper this is a virtual mirror image of Army's offense versus Navy defense described above.

Navy's offense relies heavily on the performance of Reynolds, whose 1124 yards are three times more than the next leading rusher on the Navy team. The key to stopping Navy is to stop Reynolds, but that is easier said than done. Reynolds is a better passer than either of the Army quarterbacks, but as the statistics show, Navy relies on their ground game and will use the pass to keep the Army defense honest or to catch up if they fall behind. The situation at FB for Navy is an interesting one. Chris Swain, who started the first 7 of the first 8 games and is the second leading rusher, missed the last two games. Singleton who appeared in 11 games and started the last three is listed as the starter with Swain and Noah Copeland listed as alternates.

Ellerson has been fairly successful in limiting Navy's offense in the past 4 years, in large part because the Army defense sees the triple option a lot in practice. Last year, Army succeeded in shutting down Gee Gee Greene, and with Thomas Holloway back in the lineup the Army defense it should be improved against the run, but the key is containing Reynolds and the question is whether Army is up to it.

Slight Advantage Navy

Special Teams

The Army and Navy field goal kickers are dead even. Both Daniel Grochowski of Army and Nick Sloan of Navy are 8 of 11. Grochowski has been better at converting PATs with a perfect 36 of 36, while Sloan has converted 46 of 49 for a 94% average.

Navy has a statistical advantage in punting with a net average of 38 compared to Army's 34. Navy also has a statistical advantage in punt returns with an average of 7.7 yards to Army's 3.4.

The two kickoff coverage teams are in a virtual tie ranked 46th and 47th with an average of 20.4 yards per return. The same is true for punt return defense, where they are ranked 46th and 47th with a 6.9 yards per return.

Navy holds a significant advantage in kickoff return stats ranked 70th with an average return of 20.9 yards compared to Army ranked 123 with an average of 15 yards.

Slight Advantage Navy

Coaching

The old adage says you get what you pay for, and judging from the records, that applies to the coaching staffs at Army and Navy. The Midshipmen's Head Coach Ken Niumatalolo finds ways to win, while Black Knight's mentor, Rich Ellerson has had three losing seasons in a row, and Ellerson is on the hot seat with a lot of fans. On the other hand, Ellerson has closed the gap on Navy in recent years, and the games have been competitive into the 4th quarter of each year, with the outcome hinging on turnovers rather than Xs and Os. Ellerson will be pulling out all the stops in this game and if the Hawaii game is any indicator, he may have a few tricks left up his sleeve.

Advantage Navy

Intangibles

Army and Navy both rely on team discipline and ball control to win over physically superior opponents. Navy is ranked #1 in Fewest Penalties per game (2.82) and Penalty Yards (23.1), while Army is close behind at 7th in Fewest Penalties (3.67) and 6th in Penalty Yards (30.9).

Ball security was a major factor in the outcome of recent games, and it could become a major factor in this one as well. Both Army and Navy have improved in this area over last season. Navy ranks 1st in Turnovers Lost with a remarkable 4 fumbles and 4 INTs for a total of only 8 turnovers lost all year. Army has improved over last season with just 9 fumbles and an FBS low of 3 INTs for a ranking of 15th in the FBS in Turnovers Lost. Four of Army's turnovers came in the Temple game when both Santiago and Schurr were out with injuries and Army's third and fourth team quarterbacks were directing the attack.

Army and Navy are nearly dead even in Turnovers Gained with 16 for Army and 17 for Navy, but Navy has the better Turnover Margin based on their low number of Turnovers Lost.

Both Army and Navy try to control Time of Possession and Army has done a slightly better job controlling the ball 32 minutes per game compared to Navy's 31.

Bottom Line

Navy has won the last 11 meetings and are sure to be favored in this year's contest as well, but if the past 4 years are any indicator, the game will not be decided until late in the game.

While Navy has the better record and appears to have an advantage in several statistical areas, none of those suggest a dominant advantage. Both teams rely heavily on their superior rushing games, and both have relatively poor records on defense. Neither team has a distinct advantage in size or speed, and both play disciplined football. In the end, it's likely to come down to which team makes fewer mistakes or which team survives with the fewest injuries. Don't bet the farm on either team ... but bet on it being a competitive game, just as it was in 2012.

** GoBlackKnights.com presents the Army team store where you can buy jerseys, hats, hoodies, t-shirts, jackets, and more, which make great Holiday gifts. CLICK HERE to start your shopping. **


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