By Mike Castiglione, Associate College Football Editor
Army finds itself back in the postseason for the first time in 16 years, and the Black Knights will take on the SMU Mustangs in the Armed Forces Bowl at Ford Stadium.
Army is playing in its first bowl game since 1996 and only the second since 1988. The Black Knights did fade a bit down the stretch, dropping three of their final four contests to close out the regular season. They also lost their ninth consecutive showdown against Navy earlier this month, although the game was much more competitive than the final score (31-17) would indicate, due largely to a fumble just before the half that Navy returned for a touchdown.
"What we proved to ourselves is that we can play with a really good football team," head coach Rich Ellerson said following the Navy game. "We didn't play with them for 60 minutes, and you have to play all 60 minutes. We can go on and talk about a play, and there are all kinds of plays in that contest, but that's the difference. The difference is 60 minutes."
Meanwhile, SMU will have the luxury of playing in its home stadium for this matchup, where the team went 4-2 this year. SMU has reached the postseason for the second straight year after topping Nevada in the 2009 Sheraton Hawaii Bowl, 45-10. The Mustangs won the Conference USA West Division with a 6-2 league mark this year, though they went just 1-4 outside of conference play. In the C-USA Championship, SMU fell to UCF by a 17-7 final. The Mustangs also faced Navy earlier this year in Annapolis, as they rallied from a 14-0 halftime deficit to claim a 28-21 victory.
Army has won both prior meetings in the all-time series between these two schools, although these teams have not met since 1967. This will be the eighth installment of the Armed Forces Bowl, which saw Air Force knock off Houston by a 47-20 final in last year's game.
Since taking over as Army's head coach following the 2008 season, Ellerson has made his triple-option attack a staple at West Point. The Black Knights will have to execute it very well in order to keep SMU and its dangerous offense off the field. Army averages a robust 256 rushing yards per game, which ranks 10th in the nation. Like most option teams, the passing game has taken a backseat as the Black Knights rank 120th in that department (82 ypg). While they'll scheme a pass play or two into the weekly gameplan to keep defenses honest, for the most part the Black Knights are perfectly content to move the ball down the field a few yards at a time. It's a formula that works as long as they can avoid turnovers, which they've done throughout the season by ranking seventh nationally in turnover margin.
However, perhaps the costliest turnover of the year came during a pivotal moment against Navy. Trailing 17-7 late in the first half with the ball on the Navy two-yard line, Army quarterback Trent Steelman had the ball stripped near the goal line and returned 98 yards the other way for a touchdown. The result: instead of cutting the deficit to 17-14, Army went into the locker room trailing 24-7 at halftime and was never able to recover. It was an unfortunate moment for Steelman, who has been as integral to the team's success as anybody. He threw for 128 yards and two touchdowns in the game, while also rushing for 74 yards to help the Black Knights out-rush Navy 209-139. On the season, Steelman has rushed for 694 yards and a team-best 11 touchdowns in addition to his seven passing TDs. Fullback Jared Hassin tops the squad with 931 rushing yards to go along with his nine TDs.
Army's defense has been susceptible to the run at times this season, but the Knights are solid against the pass, ranking 23rd nationally with 190.5 passing yards allowed per tilt. They also rank 27th in total defense (332 ypg) and 57th in scoring (25.2 ppg). Overall, Army's D turned in a very solid effort against Navy by bottling up the Mids' option game and coming away with four takeaways from quarterback Ricky Dobbs. However, when they needed a stop most in the fourth quarter, the Black Knights allowed Navy to grind down the clock with a 13-play drive that chewed up nine minutes and made it a 31-10 game with 5:44 to play. With coach Ellerson having spent the past few weeks hammering home 60 minutes of football, it will be interesting to see how his team responds if a similar situation presents itself in this matchup.
Linebacker Stephen Anderson, as he has done so often throughout the season, led Army with 12 tackles against Navy, also registering a half-sack, a forced fumble and fumble recovery. Anderson is the heart and soul of the unit, as he paces the team with 94 tackles, including 10.5 for loss. He has also broken up a half-dozen passes and forced four fumbles on the year. Josh McNary has notched a team-best 9.5 sacks to go along with three forced fumbles. In the secondary, Donovan Travis has come away with a team-high five interceptions while also ranking third with 53 tackles. All three of those players will need to bring their A-games if the Black Knights are to slow down SMU's potent offense.
While Army will look to keep things on the ground with the option game, SMU's spread passing attack under head coach June Jones will present quite a contrast in styles. The Mustangs are littered with playmakers on that side of the ball, including three first-team All-Conference picks. One of those players is left tackle Kelvin Beachum, who has started all 13 games this season to anchor a line that has paved the way for a school-record 5,391 yards of total offense. Another is running back Zach Line, whose 1,391 rushing yards this season trails only Eric Dickerson (1981, '82) in school history. Line is the C-USA leader with 107 yards per game on the ground. At wideout, senior Aldrick Robinson has amassed 1,225 receiving yards this season, making him the only receiver in school history with two 1,000-yard seasons. His 13 touchdown catches are also a new SMU record, as are his seven straight games with a TD grab.
In that loss to UCF in the C-USA Championship, all of the Mustangs' offensive weapons went missing and the result was a season-low seven points scored. Quarterback Kyle Padron has had a fine season for SMU, but in that game he was sacked five times and intercepted twice, finishing with 220 yards on 18-of-34 passing. The team's lone touchdown didn't come until the fourth quarter on a 22-yard pass from Padron to Robinson, but the next two possessions resulted in an interception and a turnover on downs to end any threat. On the season, Padron is averaging 271.2 passing yards per game and has thrown 29 touchdowns against 12 interceptions. While Robinson has accounted for nearly half of those TD passes, Padron does have some other solid options in the passing game. Cole Beasley has also gone over the 1,000-yard mark (1,036) and actually leads the team with 84 catches. Darius Johnson ranks second on the team with 69 catches, as he and Beasley have combined for 11 TDs.
SMU's defense has seen the triple-option already this season, so there shouldn't be many surprises there. As always, gap discipline and each player knowing their assignments are the keys to stopping it.
"The triple-option is a very difficult offense to prepare for," coach Jones said. "I'm glad we have time to prepare for it. We also played against it at Navy. This will be a better situation for us. I know (Ellerson) very well. He will have some new little wrinkles and some little things by the time we get to game day."
SMU only gave up 311 yards and two trips to the red zone in the title game against UCF, but the Knights were able to keep drives alive by converting 7- of-13 first downs. Charged with stopping that trend will be linebackers Taylor Reed (133 tackles) and Pete Fleps (116), the top two tacklers for SMU. Ja'Gared Davis has notched 82 tackles from his linebacker spot, including a team-high 15 for loss and nine sacks. He has also scored TDs on a fumble return and a blocked field goal return, and the Mustangs could certainly use a big play or two from him. Defensive end Taylor Thompson (32 tackles, 4.5 sacks) will need to set the edge in SMU's 3-4 scheme in order to limit big gains against the option.
SMU has played a fairly tough schedule, with seven of its opponents this season earning bowl bids. The Mustangs also placed five players on the All- Conference USA first team, the most for the program since 1984. That '84 season was also the last time they went to bowl games in consecutive seasons, highlighting a significant turnaround for the program under third-year coach Jones.
The Black Knights have also turned a corner under coach Ellerson, though both teams are looking to atone for poor showings their last time out. Army will try to control the tempo with the ground game, though SMU can force the Black Knights out of their comfort zone with a couple of early scores. If that happens, Army will have trouble keeping pace.