The first matchup between FBS teams on college football’s opening Saturday takes place in West Point, NY. Middle Tennessee, led by junior dual-threat quarterback Asher O’Hara, takes on Army and its signature triple option attack. After major setbacks in 2019, both the Blue Raiders and Black Knights are aiming to start 2020 in the right direction.
This makeshift non-conference matchup, which was initially announced on the schedule on August 10 is the first ever meeting between the two programs. To preview Middle Tennessee’s first opponent, Mitchell Northam of SB Nation’s Army, Navy, and Air Force blog Against All Enemies answers our questions abut the Black Knights.
Steve Helwick, Underdog Dynasty (@s_helwick): The Black Knights followed up 10 and 11-win seasons with a 5-8 record. While Army nearly knocked off Michigan at the Big House, there were some head-scratching losses on the schedule that followed including Georgia State and San Jose State. What factors attributed to the Black Knights’ inconsistency last year, and how do they revert to their level of play from 2018?
Mitchell Northam, Against All Enemies (@primetimeMitch): The season began as most expected last year for Army; the Black Knights started 3-1 with a narrow loss at Michigan. And then, everything kind of fell apart. One of the common threads in many of Army’s losses last season was that they fell behind by double-digits early and then started playing uncharacteristically to get back into those games. In five of Army’s losses, they trailed by double-digits at some point during or before the third quarter. Against Western Kentucky — a game Army should’ve totally won — they punted on their first four drives and mustered up just 64 total yards.
During the Black Knights five-game losing streak from Oct. 5 to Nov. 2, they threw an average of 14.8 times per-game. For most teams, that’s not much. But for a triple-option team, that’s quite a lot. In comparison, Army attempted just 7.5 passes per-game in 2018, in which it went 11-2, capping off the season with an epic bowl beatdown of Houston (Army hung 70 points on the Cougars while throwing just four times).
One other problem Army had was turnovers. In that great 2018 season, they gave away possession just eight times, which ranked second-best in the country. Last season, the Black Knights more than doubled that total, coughing it up 18 times. You could attribute their turnover troubles to reasons why they lost to Michigan and Georgia State. Simply put: the Black Knights lacked consistency and cohesion far too often on the offensive end, and their attack wasn’t as potent as it had been in years prior. Army needs to take care of the ball and stick to one offensive identity this season.
One more thing: In 2018 under Jay Bateman, Army had an incredible defense that ranked No. 8 in the country in yards allowed per-game at 295.3. They were also 10th in rush defense and fourth in first downs allowed. Without Bateman — who left for UNC — Army wasn’t terrible on defense, but they regressed to being middle-of-the-pack in most statistical categories. They should be improved this season under Nate Woody, who was pried away from Michigan.
Helwick, UDD: Last year we saw several previews of the Jabari Laws era against UTSA, and again at the end of the season versus Air Force. His passing numbers stand out compared to most Army quarterbacks, completing 16 of his 20 career passes with nearly 16 yards per attempt. Due to his prior success with the passing game, could we see more aerial attack from Army with Laws under center?
Northam, AAE: If Laws enters the game — or becomes the starting quarterback at some other point this season — I would expect Army to pass more often, for sure. He’s probably the best passer out of all of Army’s current quarterbacks and played well last season under-center vs. Air Force, completing 9-of-11 passes for 214 yards and a touchdown.
However, it looks like Christian Anderson will get the start at QB for Army on Saturday. A 6-foot-1 senior, Anderson isn’t the best passer — completing just 7-of-23 attempts in his career — but he is a good rusher and a decent decision maker on option runs. Anderson logged 6.4 yards per-carry on 67 touches last season, scoring four times.
Helwick, UDD: Besides the team’s reigning touchdown leader Sandon McCoy, which member of the Army backfield do you expect to have the largest impact on the game and where will he line up in most sets? And defensively, which linebacker needs to step up most to replace the production of Cole Christiansen (112 tackles, 3.5 TFLs as senior in 2019)?
Northam, AAE: Artice Hobbs seems to be the lead A-Back on Army’s depth chart this season. He was solid as a reserve last year, rushing 28 times for 158 yards, and catching 13 passes for 335 yards. He’s a player that can be dangerous in the run and pass game, and the Black Knights like to move him around a bit. Expect to see him most often line up at slotback, just behind and to the side of one of the tackles.
On the defensive side, moving into Christiansen’s role as Mike LB is Arik Smith, who played on the weak side last season. A junior this season, he has a good bit of experience, playing in 24 games so far in his career. He was second on the team in tackles last season with 83 and had 4.5 tackles for loss and a forced fumble. He stepped up in Army’s biggest game of the season, against Navy, tallying a career-high 12 tackles. It remains to be seen if he can be the defensive playmaker that Christiansen was though. Army will also miss the production of corner Eli Riley, who joins Christiansen in the NFL.
Helwick, UDD: What is your score prediction for Saturday’s game?
Northam, AAE: I think Army has the advantage here of playing at home and going against an opponent that didn’t have a ton of time to prepare for them. Still, I think MTSU will score some points too. I’ll go: Army 34, MTSU 26.
For more coverage on the Black Knights, follow SB Nation’s Army, Navy, and Air Force blog Against All Enemies on Twitter @AAE_SBN and Mitchell @primetimeMitch. Against All Enemies’ Q&A with Underdog Dynasty about Middle Tennessee can be found here.
The game between Middle Tennessee and Army kicks off Saturday at Michie Stadium in West Point at 1:30 p.m. ET on CBS Sports Network.