The Flames and Black Knights are set to face off first the first time ever, but it won’t be the last meeting. These two independent programs are scheduled to meet 4 times over the next several years. This get-together will take place at historic Michie Stadium with kickoff scheduled for 12 noon. Army opened the season last Friday night with a 34-14 loss at Duke.

West Point is led by 5th year head coach Jeff Monken who has a 24-27 record at Army. Prior to his time leading the Black Knights, Monken helped guide Georgia Southern to 3 straight FCS Playoff Semifinal appearances. He’s a disciple of current Georgia Tech head coach Paul Johnson, and has served under Johnson as a running backs coach and special teams coordinator at Georgia Southern, Navy, and Georgia Tech. With connections to all of those programs, it’s no secret that Coach Monken and the Knights like to run the triple option.

“(Army has) probably the best operation I’ve seen in the option,” defensive coordinator Robert Wimberly said. “They don’t make a lot of mistakes, had just 4 turnovers all of 2017.”

In 2017, the Army offense led all of FBS in rushing with over 360 yards per game. This year, they must replace quarterback Ahmad Bradshaw who rushed for 1,746 yards last season, the most by any service-academy player in a single season. Taking over for Bradshaw is Kelvin Hopkins, Jr., who completed 10-of-21 passes for 197 yards in the season opener. Considering the Black Knights only attempted 65 passes for 361 yards in all of 2017, those numbers are jaw dropping.

“Hopkins is a very good passer,” Wimberly said. “Last year, they didn’t have the ability. Bradshaw was a very good quarterback. He managed that Army offense, but just watching Hopkins in the Duke game, he definitely is a more accurate passer. He goes through progressions very well. It’s an added element to a very powerful run offense that they have. He is going to bring a challenge with the throwing game. Yes, you always want to lock in on stopping the run, and that’s our primary focus, but it’s always a little bit more worrisome when you have to look at a quarterback that can also throw at a high level.”

Speaking of that running game, Army has a lot of options, but none more accomplished than Darnell Woolfolk. He rushed for 812 yards and 14 touchdowns despite missing 3 games in 2017. Woolfolk had a difficult time getting traction in West Point’s season opener at Duke, where he finished with just 7 carries for 20 yards.

“#33, the fullback, he’s the guy,” Turner Gill said of Woolfolk. “If they get him rolling, we’re in trouble.”

It’s no secret that the Flames have had their fair share of struggles against the option. Look no further than last year’s game against Kennesaw State, who rushed for 498 yards at 6.5 yards per rush. Liberty quickly fell behind the Owls, 35-7, as the defense could not get them off the field. On how to improve against the option this year, Wimberly says it’s all about the personnel.

“I feel like we’ve done a better job the last 2 years with our recruiting to put our self in the position, for when we moved FBS, to make sure we had speed on the field,” Wimberly said when asked how to slow down Army’s rushing attack. “With the junior college transfers that we brought in, I’m very thankful that we really did a good job with recruiting those young men. Going against Army this week, I definitely feel we have more depth that will allow us to do some things.”

Wimberly spent a lot of time from December through June studying film. Studying his own tendencies, studying opponents, making sure he knew the ins and outs of what teams can do to hurt the Flames’ defense. He says that time spent in the film room, will be what he relies on as he has prepared this week to take on Army. In training camp, Liberty did some work against the option here and there, but it wasn’t until Sunday that Wimberly began breaking down their top formations, some of the 40+ formations Coach Monken’s offense can utilize.

“At the end of the day, it’s about assignment football and getting young men to understand what to do,” Wimberly said of stopping the option. “That’s the hardest thing about preparing for an option team because you really have 2 days to give them a lot of information, a lot of formations. The preparation is the biggest thing. You want to try to allow your young men to not do a lot of thinking, but when you’re facing a good offense like Army you know you’re going to have your hands full.”

In addition to needing to play good assignment football, the Flames will also need to tackle well. Tackling wasn’t optimal in the first half against Old Dominion, but the Flames did improve on their technique as they game went on. It’s always difficult to mimic full speed tackling in practice with the risk of injury, so Liberty’s coaching staff emphasizes teaching and drill work.

On offense, Liberty’s prolific offense will have to improve their efficiency as they will get fewer opportunities this weekend. Against ODU, the Flames scored on half of heir 16 possessions. Against Army, Buckshot won’t get that many cracks at their defense. He will be lucky to see 10. That’s how many the Blue Devils had last week against the Black Knights, and that was with 2 Army turnovers, something that is unlikely to happen again. Coach Gill has challenged his offense to have no more than one 3 & out series.

“We need to be more efficient, and we need to make sure we put points on the board when we have the opportunity,” Gill said.

Having 4 running backs rush for for over 5 yards per carry, as happened against the Monarchs, would certainly help the offense be more efficient. The Flames will continue to operate with a running back committee, with Kentory Matthews getting his first crack at the Black Knights’ defense.

“We’re a running back by committee group,” offensive coordinator Joe Dailey said. “When you get your opportunity, you have to make the most of them. That room understands no one man is more important than the other. We have to do a very good job of taking care of the ball, and we’re going to try to establish the run like we always do.”

Since Monken has taken over at West Point, he has changed the culture of the football program. He has trained his team to believe they are the tougher, more physical team. The Flames will have to match that physicality to have success Saturday.

“They are physical,” Dailey said of the Black Knights. “They play a physical brand of football. They’re not backing down. They all play with the same fanatical effort and relentless energy. We have to match that and exceed it.”


Army 35, Liberty 30

The Flames have had so much trouble stopping the option under Wimberly over the years, it’s one of those believe it when it you see it things. Yes, Buckshot & company will keep it close and stay in striking distance, but in the 4th quarter Army’s physical brand of football and home field advantage will overpower the Flames.