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Watching Army and Thinking of Inland Empire Teams

December 23rd, 2017 · No Comments · College football, Sports Journalism, The Sun

We don’t see much college football, in France. Our TV package includes stations with college matchups, but the West Coast games rarely begin before 10 p.m., Paris time, ending at 2 a.m. or so … and night games on the West Coast? Well, it’s an up-all-night thing, over here.

But we happened to find Army versus San Diego State in the Armed Forces Bowl on ESPN tonight (which we get) at a not-horrible hour. And I knew San Diego State runs the ball all the time, behind Rashaad Penny, and assumed Army would run the triple-option … and I love (the increasingly rare) games involving two run-oriented offenses.

And when it was over, I was thinking of all the triple-option coaches I had covered as a journalist at The Sun, back in California and, in particular, the Godfather of the double-wing offense, Don Markham.

Don Markham, 77, who was coaching as recently as 2014, would have loved this game, and especially the Army offense, which gave a team with, clearly, less speed and size, a chance to win.

And they did, 42-35, scoring the go-ahead two-point PAT with 18 seconds left. (Army returned a fumble for touchdown on the last play of the game.)

Army ran the ball 87 times for 440 yards and five touchdowns. The Black Knights threw it only four times, for 6 yards and an interception.

Army runs a variant of what Markham was doing at Bloomington in 1994, when the Bruins went 14-0 and scored 880 points — at the time, a national record — with seven linemen almost toe-to-toe, two wingbacks, a fullback.

(Here is some ancient YouTube video from the CIF title game, if you want to see how Bloomington rolled, back in ’94.)

Army presumably ended up with the option offense for many of the same reasons Markham employed it, often at schools that had no recent history of success: It allows smaller teams, without a standout passer, to leverage misdirection and downhill blocking into steady chunks of yardage. In Army’s case, it led to scads of third-down conversions and an astonishing 46 minutes of possession — and 91 plays from scrimmage to San Diego State’s 30.

San Diego State had very little trouble scoring, which was good and bad news — the Aztecs tended to get into the end zone quickly, thanks to Penny and a kickoff return for TD, but then their defense had to deal with the Army attack, which methodically pushed the ball down the field, converting third downs regularly and leaving the San Diego State defenders exhausted.

Army made very few mistakes, and I was reminded how an option team cannot survive turnovers and penalties, not when it is going at 5 yards a crack.

Army had one turnover, a gadget-play pass intercepted, which could have been fatal had not Army gotten its own interception a few minutes later. And Army had only four penalties for 47 yards.

To get a sense of how Army operates, have a look at the decisive two-point conversion. Note how the right end blocks down, and a guard and tackle and slotback lead the right-side wingback into the end zone.

Army finished the season 10-3, equaling the school record for victories, and we were pleased. The service academies face a lot of hurdles, when it comes to competing evenly with national powers, and Army seemed to be struggling most of all, at least till coach Jeff Monken’s third year at West Point, last season, when Army was 8-5.

Another thing I liked about it? Army had only one way to win this game, and what we saw was it. Hold the ball. Convert third downs (8-of-13) and even fourths (2-of-4), pound it in … and get ready to do it again when Raashad Penny scores from distance.

It was a fun game to watch. And, again, it reminded me of all those Inland Empire (California) teams I saw using a variant of it, including the brilliant Don Markham — who, I hope, saw the game.



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