WEST POINT – A never-in-doubt victory with virtually no contribution from your leading rusher would usually not generate particularly good odds. But odds are most teams don’t have the offensive depth that Army has already exhibited. But if the Black Knights are to give Ball State a run Saturday they’ll likely need something from everybody. Entering the season there was no reason to believe Ray Maples wouldn’t be at the top of that list.
However, after rushing just five times for 18 yards against Morgan State, there are two schools of possible thought. His presence amounted to nothing. Or his presence amounted to the rest of the offense’s capability to move the ball handily in the first half and early in the second. Army coach Rich Ellerson opts for the latter.
"We're an option offense, so our opponent is going to decide a little bit who gets to touch the ball,” Ellerson said. “They were clearly trying to keep us away from getting the ball pitched."
As Maples has generated 1,000-yard rushing efforts in each of the last two seasons by taking said pitches, Morgan State’s concentration on him was understandable. What makes the Black Knights’ offense so potentially formidable is that stopping Maples doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve shut down their offense.
"Some of that stuff was just not there,” Ellerson said of Maples having openings. “The way we were able to give it productively was to Larry [Dixon]. Those were productive gives and then of course the quarterback's legs showed up. We were good on our reads. We're an option team, so they can kind of decide who gets to touch the ball. But I'm not worried about that. We've got a lot of guys that are good with the football."
In fact, Maples only touched the ball once on his team’s first two scoring drives and not once on the two subsequent scoring drives. In baseball, it only helps to intentionally walk one batter if you’re certain the next one won’t hurt you. Morgan State presumably figured if it stopped Maples it would cripple the Army offense.
“If we're running an option play, [Maples] is one of the options, but they can take away an option, that's the nature of the offense,” Ellerson said. “The good news is, when we were moving the ball, there weren't a lot of touches because we were hitting our heads on the goalposts pretty quickly. In the second half, we were three and out and nobody got to touch the ball very much. I think defenses can make a choice and say `They're going to beat us doing X as opposed to Y.' Based on Ray's productivity, I could see why somebody would want to say `Let's see how this new quarterback is; let's see if he can run a lick and let's see if that fullback's gotten any faster.' "
The answers are: a) the new quarterback ran -- and passed -- very well; and b) if the fullback hasn’t gotten any faster, it doesn’t seem to matter.
Angel Santiago, making his first start as the undisputed No. 1 quarterback, rushed for 120 yards and three touchdowns and threw for 101 yards and a touchdown. Dixon rushed for 107 yards on just 12 rushes. And freshman wide receiver Xavier Moss made a formidable first impression with two catches, including a 51-yarder from Santiago late in the first half. It’s likely that Army will need a little -- though, more likely, a lot -- to give Ball State a run.
Last year, the Cardinals, who are hosting Saturday’s game at Scheumann Stadium, defeated Army 30-22 at Michie Stadium, a game in which Ball State quarterback Keith Wenning completed 18 of 27 passes for 189 yards and two touchdowns. In his first game of the season last week Wenning completed an incredible 34 of 40 passes for 340 yards and three touchdowns and ran for two more scores in Ball State’s 51-28 victory over Illinois State. Ball State trailed 21-9 in the second quarter, then scored the next 42 points.
“And they did it against a very good [Football Championship Subdivision] football team,” Ellerson said. “There were seven [FCS] teams that upset [Football Bowl Subdivision] opponents last week. The team they were playing, Illinois State, is that caliber of an [FCS] team. They'll do that to somebody. It was a very contested game for a half, then some of those turnovers in the kicking game got the score up. I think Ball State was going to win that game, but the score got as far away from Illinois State as it did because of the kicking game and the turnovers. Those count, too. That's good football and Ball State plays good football; they play well in every phase of the game. They're not going to give it away. You're going to have to go take it from them."
And it’s not just the quality of Wenning and Co., but the manner in which they can confound opposing defenses.
"What you didn't see last week was their run game as dominant as it has been in the past,” Ellerson said. “They've got two very gifted running backs [Willie Snead and Jahwan Edwards] and their quarterback uses his legs judiciously, but he uses them. They do a few things up front in how they block people and how they manage people that's a little bit unique. What you saw last week with Illinois State is that they had some very gifted players on their defensive front, they had a lot of folks up there, so Ball State's quarterback went to work. They could change the scoreboard in a second with the skill they have at receiver. These guys have clearly practiced with each other, they're all on the same page, they don't have a receiver that you can say `If we just take him away, we'll be okay.' Their signal callers do a great job. First and 10 is not a run down for them and third and long is not necessarily a throwing down. They're not afraid to run the ball when everybody thinks you're supposed to throw it and vice versa."
Strangely, that’s how Army played much of its game against Morgan State. It’s surely not in the Black Knights recent-vintage playbook to pass from their own 5-yard line on their first offensive play of the game. But there was Angel Santiago hitting Moss with a 24-yard pass. It hasn’t taken Moss much time to get noticed.
“We saw right away in preseason that we have a special guy here,” Ellerson said. “Obviously, he's a shadow of what he'll become over time. Fortunately, he's a guy who went to our prep school and is a little bit more mature than a typical freshman. In playing that position, it gives him a chance to be a more impactful player than he might otherwise be. If you're looking for a great interior defensive lineman to come in and save you as a freshman, that's tough. A skilled perimeter player is more realistic. I'm encouraged; we continued to be pleased in the practice environment and it showed up right away in the game. We're determined to change ourselves, and Xavier's presence, along with Chevaughn Lawrence and a senior group of receivers who are much improved, we'll be saying `Oh boy' to those opportunities instead of `Oh heck.' "
Those hecks can change into another h-word if the Black Knights find themselves on their heels against Wenning's arm and his teammates' legs.
“He’s very efficient,” Ellerson said. “He’s going to err on the side of productivity. Last year he bashed us pretty good. He’ll make us defend him.”
And as if there weren’t enough hurdles to clear, Army need be aware of another Ball State strength – its special teams. Last week, the Cardinals returned five kicks for 160 yards. Army’s goal to stunt that? Simple enough.
“We need touchbacks,” Ellerson said.
Victory should be that simple.
“They're a veteran outfit, they know their offense, they know their defense,” he said. “Certainly they'll be able to adjust for us just as we've adjusted. We're not quite the same team they saw late last year. They're going to look at us and make some adjustments, and we're trying to complement who we are. We're not going to leave our offense and defense for them, and they won't for us."
Ball State finished last season 9-4, with a Mid-American Conference record of 6-2. Its three losses – to Clemson, Northern Illinois and Kent State – were against teams that had a collective record of 33-5.
"It's a tall order,” Ellerson said. “We're playing a team that wins eight, nine, 10 games a year, on the road. People have talked about Ball State as being the Boise State of the Midwest. They're a well-coached, well-practiced football team that has playmakers on both sides of the ball. It's a tall order, but that's what we signed up for."
Maples and Dixon entered the season as the sixth-highest rushing pair of running backs in the country. The top five are Kent State’s Dri Archer and Trayton Durham; Tulsa’s Trey Watts and JaTerian Douglas; Syracuse’s Jerome Smith and Prince-Tyson Gulley; Georgia’s Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall; and Kansas’ James Sims and Tony Person.