Is Army's defense as good as the statistics suggest?

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

Army’s defense is a testament to its offense.

That offense, which runs a triple-option attack similar to Navy’s, currently averages 320.6 rushing yards per game, which ranks second nationally — ahead of fellow service academies Navy and Air Force. The Black Knights’ ability to consistently run the football also squeezes the clock. Army ranks third out of 128 programs in time of possession, holding the football for an average of more than 35 minutes per every 60-minute game.

It may sound obvious, but every second Army has the football is a second its opponent doesn’t.

Against Notre Dame on Saturday, Army head coach Jeff Monken is looking to make those seconds count.

“We’ve got to try to keep it away from them,” Monken said on Tuesday. “That’s what Navy did last week. Notre Dame only had six possessions in the game, which is hard to believe. They limited their possessions, and that’s what we’re going to have to do.

“They’ve got big people, talented people. They are a great bunch of football players. I’ve got so much respect for that place, for coach (Brian) Kelly and his staff and his coaches. As I said, their record is not a reflection of what kind of team they are.”

But what kind of team is Army? Through eight games, the Black Knights sit sixth nationally in total defense, allowing just 286.4 yards per game. That defense is balanced in its quality, ranking fifth in passing defense (166.6 yards per game) and 24th in rushing defense (119.9 yards per game). Monken’s team allows 13.6 first downs per game, which ranks second nationally — behind only Alabama. It allows just 18.1 points per game, which ranks 13th.

And sure, its offense is adept at playing keep-away. But that isn’t the only explanation for Army’s defensive success.

If Army’s defense was only a product of its offense, it wouldn’t hold opponents to 5.1 yards per play (24th). It wouldn’t have 12 interceptions in nine games (12th). It certainly would have allowed more than 15 plays of 30 or more yards this season (22nd).

An efficient triple-option offense certainly helps, but Army’s defense is no mirage — and Mike Denbrock knows it.

“They are limiting every team that they play against to very few yards on the ground, and people haven’t fared that much better when they’ve thrown the ball,” said Denbrock, Notre Dame’s associate head coach and offensive play-caller, on WSBT Weekday Sportsbeat. “So we’ve got our work cut out for us. They’re an attacking style of defense. They’re based in the same kind of defense that Navy is, although there’s a lot of different nuances to it that we’re going to have to get the players ready for this week.

“They’re not afraid to bring pressure on every down if they have to to try to slow you down, so we’re going to have to be on top of our business to move the football effectively.”

If there’s a flaw in the Army defense, it’s that the Black Knights have not been particularly disruptive. Through nine games, Army (5-4) averages just 1.9 sacks (82nd) and 5.4 tackles per loss (90th) per game. The Black Knights have forced just seven fumbles (112th) and recovered four (90th).

In the red zone, Army’s enemies come away with points 90.5 percent of the time (103rd) and find the end zone at a 66.7 percent clip (96th).

They are not perfect, but the Black Knights are improved.

“I’m not taking anything away from our players, but we don’t have 15 Parade All-Americans,” Monken said. “We’re a bunch of guys that are just working really, really hard to be the best we can be.

“Our guys have really embraced the defense and the scheme and tried to play it as well as they can and be good fundamental players in terms of tackling and playing blocks.”

The real test will come in San Antonio on Saturday.

To this point, only one of Army’s eight FBS opponents — Air Force (42nd) — ranks in the top 60 nationally in total offense. Those eight teams’ have an average national rank in that category of 89.9.

Notre Dame is different.

The Black Knights will have to do more than play keep-away to keep the Irish out of the end zone.

“They’re an outstanding team,” Monken said, “a team that’s going to give us every challenge imaginable in terms of trying to block them, getting off blocks, returning kicks, running routes, covering guys — all of it.”

mvorel@ndinsider.com

574-235-6428

Twitter: @mikevorel

Army's Jeremy Timpf, bottom, tackles an Air Force player during an NCAA college football game in West Point, N.Y., Saturday, Nov. 5, 2016. (Josh Conklin/Times Herald-Record via AP)