Rating the Offense
Army closed off its first game of the Ellerson Era with a 27-14 defeat of Eastern Michigan on Saturday. On both sides of the ball, the Black Knights put new schemes on display. Following a 2008 year that featured fullback Collin Mooney as the one true weapon on the ground. Army needed to escape the one-dimensional offensive attack which now allows for them to effectively move and protect the football, as well as effectively manage the play clock, while maintaining discipline with limiting penalties. If Saturday's game is any indication, they have started the escape process and the Black Knights did enough to win, but there is plenty of room to make improvements.
GoBlackKnights.com looks at the performances on the offensive side of the ball and reveals our first report of the season.
Quarterback Trent Steelman became the first freshman quarterback in the modern era to start an opening day game for Army. With just a month under his belt of practice, Steelman proved to Ellerson and staff that he was best suited to run the offense, beating out Chip Bowden for the starting spot. Steelman was effective in running the option offense, but saw his first action of breaking down an opposing defense and running at full game speed.
On the run, Steelman struggled early in the game. He had trouble breaking initial contact and finding the right seams to cut and run. However, he quickly showed a dimension of the game that Army was sorely missing in 2008 - the option toss / pitch. Last season, Army had a difficult time turning downfield on the pitch, and the slotbacks often found themselves getting the ball deep in the backfield with pressure coming from the defense - often resulting in a turnover, a loss, or a short gain. On Saturday, Steelman was effective in getting the ball to the pitchman at the right position, and the blocking was moving downfield giving the slotback room to run. The result was what Army fans have been looking for out of an option offense - big gains down the sideline. In the first drive of the game, Steelman used the toss three times - twice to Patrick Mealy and once to Jameson Carter. All three resulted in big plays for Army, with two being for first downs, and the third getting Mealy into the end zone. In the third quarter on a key third down play, Steelman faked a handoff to fullback CeDarius Williams then cut left on the run. He was met head on by an Eastern Michigan defender, but somehow pitched left to Carter, who turned on the afterburners for a 31-yard gain down the left sideline. Following that play, Army continued its drive and ended up in the end zone. A two point conversion attempt again saw efficient use of the toss, this time to the right to slotback Ian Smith for two.
Late in the game, with momentum at a lull and the result still in question, Steelman again hit Mealy on a toss to the right, and Mealy took the ball 72 yards to the EMU 5, setting up a Kingsley Ehie touchdown that would seal the victory for the Black Knights.
As the game progressed, Steelman - who cracked a rib in the second quarter and sat out a partial series as Bowden came in to replace him - showed improvement on the run. Early in the third quarter, Steelman took the snap, moved right, and was hit and spun out of the contact to move downhill for a 5 yard gain. Steelman is listed as "likely" for the home opener against Duke after spending Saturday evening at the hospital after the game to attend to his rib.
Chip Bowden played in one series, but got no help from the Army offense, who had two penalties before Army could even give Bowden a chance to show what he had. On the third snap, the play clock wore down and Bowden had to take a timeout. When Army did finally get off a key play, Bowden was outrun by his pitch option and was stuffed for a three-yard lost.
In the passing game, Steelman and Army were ineffective. He was only able to complete two passes, one for a loss of two to wide receiver Damion Hunter off a screen, and the other a 10 yard gain to Hunter. Steelman did show some zip on his throws, two of which were dropped by senior wide receiver Ali Villanueva. Steelman had Jameson Carter wide open in the middle, but threw the ball short and Army missed out on a sure touchdown. The Black Knights will need to be more effective in the passing game to spread defenses as the season progresses.
SLOTBACK/ A BACK (B+)
Junior slotback Patrick Mealy led the way on the ground for the Black Knights on Saturday, carrying the ball five times for 109 yards and a touchdown. Though Mealy does not have the pure speed many look for in a good option slotback, he has a quick move at the corner and does an excellent job following his blockers, much like former Army running back Carlton Jones. Mealy showed good quickness on his 72 yard run late in the third quarter, but ran out of gas and was tracked down at the EMU five yard line.
Jameson Carter, who ran five times for 52 yards and a touchdown, showed an explosive second gear. On his 31 yard gainer of a Trent Steelman toss, Carter showed deceptive speed down the sideline, with a touchdown only being stopped by the EMU defense running a good angle. Carter showed that if he can get into the open field, he will gain some good ground for the Black Knights. He can also be an effective receiver and would have been in the end zone had a Steelman pass not fallen short over the middle.
Ian Smith saw limited action in the game, running only twice - once for a five-yard gain off a pitch right, and once for a two point conversion on the same play. His running style is similar to that of Mealy, effectively reading his blocks and finding the right hole.
FULLBACK / B BACK (B-)
Sophomore fullback CeDarius Williams ran the ball 10 times for 43 yards in the game. He showed good power up the middle, but the Eastern Michigan defense did a good job of wrapping him up and not allowing much room for any type of big gain. The Army offensive line had a difficult time making the push and opening holes for Williams by the time he got to the line of scrimmage, which cut off the middle through much of the first three quarters.
Junior fullback Kingsley Ehie came into the game in the third quarter and completely opened up the running game up the middle. Ehie ran for 75 yards on 12 carries, and found the end zone twice. His ability to read the line and find the open hole resulted in big gains and completely opened up running game up the middle. Eastern Michigan did not have an answer for him, and the change in pace due to his play changed the momentum of the game. Though it may have been at a point in the game where the EMU defensive line had worn down, Ehie was pulling off yardage in chunks. His only real fault was a fumble late in the fourth quarter, something he will have to watch out for if he is going to continue his performance as the season progresses.
WIDE RECEIVER (D)
Senior wide receiver Damion Hunter, who showed a great ability to break tackles and gain good yardage after the catch, was tentative and limited in his play on Saturday. Hunter caught two passes, one off a screen for a loss of two, and the other down the left sideline for ten yards. On the screen, the play was read from the snap by the defense, and they converged quickly, hitting Hunter at the instant he caught the ball. On his second reception, Hunter again was unable to make a move off after the catch and was brought down immediately. Hunter has had trouble holding on to the ball in the past. He was primarily used as kickoff return specialist, and though he showed great speed, he fumbled too often. That happened again on Saturday on a kickoff return, though the ball went harmlessly out of bounds. The coaching staff will need to keep an eye on that, especially if Hunter begins to make moves downfield.
Senior wide receiver (and converted offensive lineman) Ali Villanueva had an inauspicious start to his receiving career. Villanueva dropped both passes that came his way, though one would have been a difficult catch at best. Chalk it up to initial game jitters, but Villanueva will need to step it up immediately.
OFFENSIVE LINE (B-)
The one thing that fans have to be happy about when it comes to the play of the offensive line on Saturday is how they progressed, especially in the running game, throughout the night on Saturday. When the line is moving downhill, they seem much more comfortable and did an outstanding job moving left or right. They struggled a bit through much of the game making the push up the middle, which limited the quarterback draw and the handoff to the fullback up the middle. They also had a very tough time protecting the pass, putting Steelman on the move when he had to throw. Steelman was also sacked twice in the game, not a good sign when he only attempted five throws.
However, the play of the offensive line became very important towards the end of the game, when the attacking style of play really wore down the EMU defensive front. The result was huge chunks of yardage. Army gained about two thirds of their total yards on the ground in the last third of the game.
Discipline is going to have to improve though. Penalties (holding, false start) put Army in first and second and long too often, something an option offense just can't afford.
The penalties were a problem and need to be fixed immediately. That is something that should be rectified pretty quickly with practice and additional time working together.
A key positive on the day was the number of turnovers. Army was +2 for the day, with their only turnover coming off a Ehie run late in the fourth quarter. However, Steelman and Hunter both lost the ball on the ground, with Army covering the Steelman fumble and the Hunter fumble rolling out of bounds.
The challenge for the coaching staff is how to put all of the parts together, and as the players are learning the offense, the coaching staff is learning how the players execute it. What was important was that the staff did not put Army in a place where they would get into a situation that saw a big momentum shift or put Army in a hole off of a risky play that did not pay off. The staff essentially used and play calling set that protected the ball and eventually wore down EMU. By the time the fourth quarter rolled around, there was no doubt that Army was in control.
Army showed that they have a solid foundation from which to build from as they prepare to face Duke at home this Saturday. They will need to fix the penalty situation, and can hopefully fix the opening game jitters that we saw in the passing game. However, there was a lot of positive in this game and if they can keep that in place while building on the areas that need improvement, they will be in good shape against the Blue Devils.
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