WEST POINT – An opponent’s offense can be very offensive, particularly if you’re having trouble stopping it. That’s been Army’s problem the last two weeks, having given up 74 points in its losses to Ball State and Stanford. A similar reprise Saturday against Wake Forest is just as ominous.
“They’re obviously very prolific at different things,” Army head coach Rich Ellerson said. “With them you’re going to have unbalanced formations, one back, two backs, three backs, no backs, wide receivers in motion turning into tailbacks, turning into pitch backs. There’s a lot of misdirection in this. The ball disappears, and that was what got us last week. We lost our eyes and gave up an easy one. Wake Forest challenges your eyes and your discipline as much as anybody we’ll play all year.”
The easy one cited by Ellerson was the 46-yard touchdown pass allowed by the Black Knights early in the second quarter. But five of the Cardinal’s six scoring drives involved at least one play of 22 yards, the exception being its last touchdown, when Stanford took over the ball at the Army 29. In all, Stanford had nine plays that each netted 20 yards or more.
This week Army is playing a team that scorched them for 517 total yards in the Demon Deacons’ 49-37 victory last season. And the tandem that did the most damage, quarterback Tanner Price and wide receiver Michael Campanaro are back. Against Army last year, Price threw for 221 yards and two touchdowns. Campanaro caught both of those touchdowns, and finished with 153 yards receiving. As if that wasn’t enough, there’s running back Josh Harris, who rushed for 129 yards in the team’s victory.
“We have seen these guys before and an awful lot of the names that you are looking at on the sidelines are the guys we faced a year ago, particularly on offense,” Ellerson said. “Price and Campanaro, they had a big game on Saturday, and they had a big game against us a year ago.”
Strangely, though, the Deacons have only had one big offensive day this season, a 31-7 opening-day victory over Division II Presbyterian. Since, they have lost to Boston College 24-10, and, last week, 21-19 to Louisiana-Monroe. But Price and Camponaro are still locked in. Price has averaged 240 yards passing per game, second best in the ACC; Camponaro’s 131 receiving yards per game is also second in the conference. Harris, however, has been borderline invisible, rushing for only 55 yards in three games.
“Well, the challenge with the current Wake Forest team is that within the last two weeks they have been a very different offense,” Ellerson said. “They have done a lot of different things. They challenge you formation-wise, they challenge you with the option, with throwing the football, and they challenge you with some power offense. Now I don’t think we’re going to get all of that, but you have to prepare for an awful lot of it because you just don’t know what you’re going to get and what they are going to pull out of there. They were able to execute a lot of offense against us a year ago and a lot of it worked.”
The Black Knights could say the same for themselves. Six players rushed for a combined 429 yards against Wake Forest last season, with Raymond Maples (140 yards) and Larry Dixon (112 yards) leading the way. But having been hurt in the second quarter against Stanford Maples will miss this game with an apparent groin injury. Dixon missed most of the second half against Stanford, but will play. Last week, Terry Baggett was an effective fill-in, rushing for 96 yards on only nine carries.
“We have obviously talked about Terry a lot,” Ellerson said. “We’ve seen that when he has the ball in his hands there is a big upside. Now that he is able to stay out there and touch the ball routinely, you are going to see some upside.”
Baggett did have some help, and for the game Army utilized eight running backs, a high for the season. However, its 284 yards rushing was the Black Knights’ lowest total since last season’s 282 yards, gained in their 28-7 loss to Rutgers. After leading the nation in rushing each of the last two seasons, Army is seventh this season, averaging 314 yards per game.
Nevertheless, it seems the priority is keeping Price in check.
“We’re going to try to generate some five-man pressures and things like that,” Ellerson said. “As you do that though, you thin out the back end, especially with this opponent’s propensity to throw the ball in front of you. The thinner the defense is, if it’s getting thrown quickly, the pressure can’t help you, it can only hurt you. If we can generate pressure with three or four guys, that keeps the alleys a little bit thicker and keeps it a little bit less lonely for your corners. The good news last week, was when they were using their base protections, we were able to get pressure. We forced their hand in bringing more and more people into the protection scheme. It’s a cat-and-mouse game a little bit, but when we’ve had some pressure, we’ve affected the throws and forced some errors.”
Army started last season 0-4 before its first victory. The Black Knights won their opener this season before losing the last two. As they face two quality-conference teams – Louisiana Tech (Conference- USA) and Boston College (ACC) – on the road the next two weeks, a victory over Wake Forest may be necessary to prevent the season from getting away.
“There is a short list of things that we need to be able to eliminate,” Ellerson said. “There is some low-hanging fruit out there that has frustrated us and continues to frustrate us in critical situations.”
“We got back on the right side of the penalty thing,” he said. “We got back on the right side of the turnover for the game, but we still had the ball on the ground in a critical situation and we need not to do that. We are creating some opportunities on balls that we don’t get. In our kicking game, we make good kicks but we don’t have good field position coming out of our kick return, and on our punt return we give up some significant margins. We have progressed but there are all kinds of room for improvement there. We can put our offense on a shorter field and our defense on a longer field using our kicking game.”
Offense. Defense. Kicking. Yeah, that seems to cover it.