As you may have heard already this week, the Wisconsin Badgers and Army Black Knights have never met on the football field before. So, obviously, we had a lot of questions. Luckily, friend of the blog (and excellent newsletter writer) Patrick Mayhorn had some free time this week and offered to answer some of our questions.
Check out his answers about the Army triple-option, how long the game will be and a couple of key players to look out for on Saturday night.
For those who are unfamiliar, can you give an overview of Army’s offense and why it is so effective?
Gladly. Army is one of the few teams in college football that still runs a true, under-center triple option – along with the other academies and a few FCS programs. If you’ve watched a high school football game in the last 50 years or so, you know what I’m talking about here. There’s a lot of flexbone, pre-snap motion and quick-read option plays.
Its effectiveness is derived almost entirely from the physics of the sport. The strength of the option is that it can eliminate defenders without blocking them. A quarterback reading a defensive end and a linebacker removes those two players from the blocking equation because if the quarterback is correct in his reads, he can’t lose those matchups.
A defender can’t cover both parts of an option, and when the option is right, he’ll only be covering the part that no longer matters for the play. That means that Army can create even or advantageous numbers in the box, even without dedicating more blockers to the line, as non-option teams have to when they run the ball.
For example: A seven-man defensive box is usually a lot, in the modern game. But a seven-man box against Army creates different math. The Black Knights have five offensive linemen on any given play, and then one back (of the three) without an option assignment, giving them six blockers on the seven defenders. Army rarely blocks the backside defensive end (because it doesn’t need to), so just from that, even with five linemen, Army has now equalized those number, before the ball is even snapped.
Once it’s snapped, by leaving an end unblocked as the quarterback’s first read, and a second-level player as the second read, Army now has six blockers to deal with just four defensive players in the box, meaning that the remaining two can get downfield into the third level.
It’s just numbers and physics. The triple option schools understand both better than any other rushing attack in America.
Alright, now that we have the basics of the triple-option down...how has the Black Knight’s offense looked this season?
It’s good! Christian Anderson is as good as anyone they’ve had at quarterback. He’s not a super consistent big-play threat, but he’s extremely comfortable within the offense and can keep it ahead of schedule consistently because he just doesn’t miss his reads. Army’s lone loss of the season came against Ball State in a game that he missed with a shoulder injury, but he was already day-to-day then, and he’s had an off week to recover. He should be fine.
Much of the offense relies on him, but there is talent elsewhere. Jakobi Buchanan and Anthony Adkins are strong fullbacks but not a whole lot more. The real gem here is winger Tyrell Robinson, one of my favorite players in football. he doesn’t get the ball a whole lot, but when he does, it’s usually a big play. When No. 21 gets the ball on a pitch or as the secondary option read...man. Watch out.
If you were to be a subscriber to the top G5 related newsletter, The Outside Zone by Patrick Mayhorn, you’d already know that Ball State isn’t that great. How did they beat a previously undefeated Army last week?
As mentioned, Anderson was out, and that pretty much sunk Army’s chances. I will also note, I think Ball State is rapidly improving, too. Drew Plitt is easing back in at quarterback, and the defense seems to be full-on good again. The Cardinals just beat a good Western Michigan team by 25 on the road.
Army is tops in the country in time of possession and Wisconsin is fourth. How long do you think this game will take? A cool 80 minutes?
God willing. This really might be a sub-two-hour game, depending on who has the broadcast rights. If this was on FOX, there’s no chance. But a BTN broadcast? Buddy, you can comfortably make some post-game plans and not worry at all about this interrupting them.
Wisconsin has the top rushing defense in the country, does that matter against a team like Army? Will the Black Knights throw more than usual?
It certainly isn’t a bad thing to have the best rushing defense in the country against Army – that’s never going to be a bad thing – but stopping an option team and stopping a Big Ten rushing attack is fairly different. The tackling and pursuit angles translate, but it’s a different experience as a run-stuffing nose tackle or a linebacker to go up against an offensive line that wants to hit you right in the knees all game than it is to play against, like, Notre Dame.
If Wisconsin plays it as such, it will have some issues, because Army is very good at making aggressive defenses work against themselves, and can generate a lot of traction if a defense isn’t fully prepared for a completely new kind of football game when compared to the ones they usually play.
Let’s get a prediction from you for the game. Can Army pull off the upset over the Badgers? Can we also get a player of the game on Army’s defense to watch out for?
I think there’s a decent chance Army wins here, honestly. I won’t predict it, but if the offense can stay on pace, they’ll comfortably burn eight minutes off the clock every possession, and Graham Mertz with five possessions in a game sounds like five three-and-outs to me, especially if he doesn’t have a short field to work with (Army is very good at playing the field position game).
There’s also a distinct chance that Wisconsin just sits on the Army offense. It happens. But with what I’ve seen from Wisconsin’s offense, I don’t think it’s impossible at all that you could see an upset here. This is a really good Army team, and we’ve seen really good Army teams cause a lot of problems for better P5 teams than this one.
As for a defender, I’ll go with Andre Carter II, a 6-foot-7, 250-pound outside linebacker with a specialty in pass rushing. No relation to the former LSU first-rounder of the same name, as far as I know.