September 4, 2012

GBK: Army vs. SDSU: Analysts Square Off

As Army Head Coach Rich Ellerson noted in today's press conference, "we're excited to go... I've dreaming about this, working for this since January. We've had a great preseason with a few bumps and bruises that we are working through this week, but as I said, we are excited to get this show on the road and find out where we are.

And on the road it will be. Army will travel across the continental United States to take on San Diego State with the hope of revenging last year's , for whom they lost to 23-20 lose.

This will be the Black Knights' season opener, whereby the Aztecs will try to rebound from their opening lost to Washington, 21-12.

So let's read ahead to hear what Tom Shanahan, Senior Writer of and Agustin Gonzalez, Publisher of have to say about Saturday's match-up.

What team has the more potent offense?

At least early in the year it's clearly Army. The Black Knights have a fourth-year starting quarterback in Trent Steelman who is about to become an Army officer. That's a big edge in leadership. San Diego State's Ryan Katz is talented but as a transfer this is only his second game of playing a new offense with new teammates.

I give the edge to Army.

San Diego State has a wealth of weapons in the passing game, from stud tight end Gavin Escobar (who could be playing on Sundays next year), to the speedy Colin Lockett, to USC transfer Brice Butler and breakout candidate Ezell Ruffin. On the ground, Adam Muema can move the pile and Walter Kazee (86 yards, 9.6 yards per carry against Washington) had a terrific performance last weekend and looked just fine returning from his season-ending knee injury. Quarterback Ryan Katz had a subpar first game, but has the ability to make plays with his legs and in the air if he'll let it fly.

The Aztecs scored only 12 points (via two touchdowns) against the Huskies defense, which was awful last year, but it seemed like they weren't totally prepared for the looks that new Washington defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox threw at them. SDSU knows what to expect from Army's defense after playing them last year. The Black Knights have a formidable rushing attack, but can they make plays in the passing game when needed? I'll give the edge to SDSU here.

Who is the offensive x-factor and why?

Army's X-factor is senior Malcolm Brown, where he shifts from running back to wide receiver. The Black Knights' depth in the offensive backfield allowed the talented but injury-prone Brown to move outside and more importantly get the ball in his hands on the perimeter where he is most effective. If there was a nickname that is best fitting for the shifty Brown, it would be either Mr. Clutch or Mr. Dependable. He was Army's best receiving running back and perhaps the team's best receiver overall. He has demonstrated that his YAC (yards after the catch) is better than the current corp of receivers on the roster.

It's got to be Katz. In his Aztec debut, he went 10-19 for 128 yards, with a good chunk of those yards coming on a 47-yard scoring catch-and-run by Tim Vizzi on a gimmick play along the sideline. The pieces are in place around Katz for the passing attack to be successful, but if he has another forgettable performance for the second game in a row, it could raise some eyebrows about the quarterback situation in San Diego.

With Army coming in with their returning backfield that lead the nation in rushing in 2011 (346 yards per game) and SDSU defense holding Washington to just 106 yards are ground in the 2012 season opener.  Will SDSU's "D" keep Army's "O" under 275 yards rushing?

There's a good chance of that. With the injury to Army center Ryan Powis, who is a 2012 Remington candidate, Army offensive line may not be as potent, although senior Will Wilson is more than capable backup. Could there be some timing issues in an opener? Perhaps, but more so, San Diego State's defense has a game under its belt. But unlike a year ago, 300 yards may not be a defining total for Army. The Black Knights of the Hudson expect to show an improved passing game when defenses are stacked against the run.

It all depends on if SDSU's defense can play a complete game, something it had a problem doing against Washington and for much of last season. Army ran wild with 403 rushing yards against the Aztecs last year, and with Steelman, Maples and Brown returning for the Black Knights, It's safe to expect big rushing numbers again. I think Army racks up more than 275 yards rushing, but SDSU keeps the Black Knights out of the end zone for most of the game.

Which team has the better defense?

The defenses are so similar in style of play, experience and size that this one is pretty much a coin flip. However, SDSU's experience in a secondary that is led by an NFL prospect in cornerback Leon McFadden gives the Aztecs' the edge.

SDSU shook off a sluggish start defensively on Saturday to hold an explosive Washington offense to only 231 total yards in the final three quarters, and kept the Huskies "o" out of the end zone after the first quarter.

The Aztecs have playmakers in the secondary (Leon McFadden and Nat Berhe) and linebacker (Jake Fely), good team speed defensively and a young and inexperienced defensive line showed real promise in the second half against Washington. Rocky Long's 3-3-5 defense has had success historically against service academies' triple option offense, so I have to give the edge to SDSU. 

Who is the defensive x-factor and why?
Army's X-factor is the improvement of sophomore defensive tackle Jarrett Mackey Mike Ugenyi. He had a strong spring and even better fall camp when he moved from No. 3 on the depth chart to be set to start the season opener.

With Army relying so heavily on the run, middle linebacker Jake Fely will be the key player to watch here. It will be vitally important for Fely to get SDSU's defense lined up correctly to stop Army's triple option, and for the undersized but fast middle linebacker to lock down Steelman's runs up the middle. Fely notched eight tackles against Army last year, and expect another big performance from him this time around.

Who has the edge on special teams?

Both teams are in need of drastic improvement. Army has focused on special teams since last spring, while SDSU is still searching for answers to its kicking game. Anyone who says this more than a coin flip is fooling you. SDSU's Rocky Long is trying to some unorthodox things, including a fourth-down chart, to compensate for the lack of a kicking game. SDSU fan feeling flabbergasted by Long should recall how long it's been since SDSU had stable a head coach under Claude Gilbert and Don Coryell.

With Long opting to not kick any extra points or field goals against Washington, the SDSU kicking game is still a mystery. All three of the Aztecs' kickers were unimpressive in fall camp, and neither have earned the permanent starting job yet. Punter Joel Alesi is also very inconsistent. SDSU may have a weapon in the return game in Brandon Wright, who had a 51-yard kickoff return to start the season opener. Army seems to have a question mark in the kicking game as well, so I'll chalk this up as a draw right now.

Which team drives the length of the field?

Army can drive the ball the length of the field on anyone but maybe Alabama. Where the Black Knights need improvement is in the red zone. San Diego State coach Rocky Long can thank his old boss, Brady Hoke, and Hoke's respect for service academy football for having to confront two triple-option offenses this season on only one week's preparation -- Army this week and Air Force in Mountain West play on Oct. 20. Hoke scheduled the Army-SDSU games (2011 and 2012) before he left for Michigan last season. Hoke also scheduled both Army and Navy when he was Ball State's head coach and this week Michigan plays Air Force.

This year's offense will be less reliant on the big play and is better equipped to extend drives and keep the chains moving, but still figures to be more explosive than methodical. On the other hand, Army figures to grind it out on the ground and go on long, time-consuming drives, and control the ball.

Which player is the sleeper for Saturday's game & why?

San Diego State sophomore running back Adam Muema is ready for a breakout season. An off-field injury before his freshman year forced a redshirt in 2010 and he was behind a NFL running back (Ronnie Hillman, now with Denver) and a hard-nosed veteran Walter Kazee in 2011. Kazee is as tough as any player Army will face this year. Muema was a recruiting coup for the Aztecs when he picked SDSU over Colorado, Washington State and Nevada. Conversely, Army's sophomore slotback Terry Baggett is going to turn some heads this year and with the Aztec most likely keying in on 1,000 rusher, Raymond Maples - look for Baggett to breakout.

Brice Butler transferred from USC so he could get more action and show off for NFL scouts in his final collegiate season, and has the size, speed and skill set to do so. But Butler failed to record a reception last weekend, and couldn't come down with what would have been a crucial touchdown catch in the fourth quarter. He'll have a chip on his shoulder heading into this game, and I think he has a bounce-back performance.

Predict the final score?

Army 30

This is the first game this season that I didn't have Army favorite, so let's hope that wrong once again.

After playing Army at West Point last year, SDSU should know just what to expect from the Black Knights, both offensively and defensively. The Aztecs have also had tremendous recent success against service academies and their triple option offenses, and the 3-3-5 defense will employ a bend-but-not break strategy. Army will put up some gaudy rushing numbers, but I think SDSU keeps the Black Knights out of the end zone for most of the night. This won't necessarily be an easy game, especially since Army had an extra week to prepare, but I like the Aztecs at home, 28-13.

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