WEST POINT, N.Y. — Jeff Ejekam stood in a line next to fellow Army wide receivers on the practice field, in the shadow of Michie Stadium, on the banks of the Hudson River, bordered by half-naked tree branches clinging to auburn leaves. Beneath a purple-bruised sky, in the first chill of fall, the receivers snapped their arms forward and hit defensive backs. “Heavy hands!” wide receivers coach David Corley yelled. “I want to hear the pads! Work your craft!”
Ejekam’s craft, despite the label of his position, is blocking. When he calls high school friends who play for other college teams, they rattle off their yardage totals and other stats. “Well,” Ejekam will respond, “I had three pancakes” — blocks in which the defender is flattened to the ground. Army’s wide receivers jokingly, but proudly, call themselves “wide tackles.”
“It takes some getting used to,” Ejekam said. “I came from a spread offense in high school. It’s amazing. It really is a different role. You got to embrace it. I love being a receiver here, honestly.”
Army football, in its fourth season under Coach Jeff Monken, is authoring a renaissance season — its best campaign, by any reasonable measure, since 1996. Two years ago, Army finished 2-10. This week, the 7-2 Black Knights received votes in both the Associated Press poll and the coaches’ poll. They have already accepted an invitation to the Armed Forces Bowl, their second consecutive bowl appearance. If it beats Navy at season’s end, Army will claim its first Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy in 21 years.
It has based its forceful ascension on extreme grounding. In three of its seven victories and four of its nine games, Army has not completed a pass. Last Saturday, in a 21-0 thumping of Air Force, it did not even attempt a pass. For the season, the Black Knights have completed 16 of 56 attempts for 266 yards while rushing for 3,289. Their leading receiver in terms of yardage, junior running back Jordan Asberry, has caught three passes for 78 yards, including a 42-yard touchdown. Their top wideout, Ejekam, has caught two passes for 48 yards.
Since 2000, according to data collected by Sports-Reference.com, college football teams have won seven times without completing a pass. This year’s Black Knights are responsible for three of them.
Army is the team that never passes and almost always wins.
“Ground force is a pretty powerful thing,” Athletic Director Boo Corrigan said, “in the army and in football.”
How — and why — it works
As a triple-option team, Army has long relied on running, but not to this degree. It has nearly eliminated passing this season for several reasons, starting with personnel. The triple option is an equalizer, allowing a smaller offensive line to not block an enormous defender, instead allowing the quarterback to read him and distribute or keep the ball. Trying to pass-block would eliminate the advantage.
“I thought we had to throw it more than we’ve been throwing it to win,” Monken said. “As it turns out, we’ve just run the ball more effectively this year than we’ve ever run, and that’s been good enough most of the times we’ve played. It’s not that we can’t pass or that we refuse to do it.
“We recognize, and aren’t afraid to acknowledge, we’re not as physically big as most people we play across the board. Though I think we’ve got some talented players, I don’t know if, man for man, we’re as talented as most teams we play. So we got to play a team game.”
Running allows Army to accentuate its strengths. Its smallish offensive line is experienced and aggressive. The Black Knights rotate four fullbacks, and they all count among their best players. “We’ve got some guys here that are definitely ruthless,” said senior offensive tackle Brett Toth, Army’s best NFL prospect. “They’d go through a wall if you told them to, especially the fullbacks. Those guys are meat-eaters.”
Senior quarterback Ahmad Bradshaw has become a master at running the triple option, a tactician who understands the offense in its totality. An elusive and tough inside runner, he’s rushed for 1,132 yards and eight touchdowns. As for passing?
“It’s not his deal,” Monken said.
When Army runs the two-minute drill, it replaces Bradshaw with his backup, sophomore Kelvin Hopkins Jr. Against Temple, Hopkins entered with Army down seven and 1:31 remaining in the fourth quarter. He led a 14-play, 79-yard drive that ended when Jermaine Adams caught a touchdown pass with one second left, and Army won on a field goal in overtime.
“It’s normal for me,” Bradshaw said. “Just execute, get the job done, do what you’ve got to do to get the job done.”
Army’s success has required wide receivers who don’t mind blocking every play and a senior quarterback who lets his backup do the passing. “We have the most unselfish group of skill kids I’ve ever seen,” offensive coordinator Brent Davis said. “They don’t care who gets the ball. They just want to win.”
Monken’s philosophy has also led to minimal passing. He believes Army needs to limit possessions and control the clock, to prevent opponents from wearing down Army’s undersized defense. They want to limit negative plays and the risks of a sack, interception or even a clock-stopping incomplete pass. By its own accounting, Army is one of the nation’s leaders in fewest plays for negative yardage, and it has gone 31 for 31 in converting third and two or shorter into first downs.
In 2013, his final season at Georgia Southern, Monken called three pass plays against Florida. “The third one almost got picked off,” Monken said. “And we said, ‘That’s enough of that.’ ” Georgia Southern won at The Swamp without completing a pass. A ball commemorating the upset rests in Monken’s office.
Even though defenses can disregard the pass, Army still can run effectively. The Black Knights employ an array of formations, including out of the shotgun, which presents different actions and angles. Offensive linemen learn every spot on the line, so they understand not only their assignment, but how and why the entire offense operates. Toth laughed when asked how many blocking schemes and techniques the Black Knights employ, settling on “about 50” as an estimate.
Army frequently uses a sixth offensive lineman, overloaded to one side. It often employs what players have come to call a Try-And-Stop-Us Drive: the extra lineman making simple blocks. “They know we’re running. We know we’re running,” senior tackle Joshua Boylan said. “So, good luck.”
Last year, Monken received information from Championship Analytics and decided he needed to go for it more often on fourth down. The subtle shift also led to more running plays. If the Black Knights face third and seven, Davis knows he can call two running plays, rather than trying to pick up a first down by passing.
“It’s made us more aggressive going for it,” Davis said. “At times, it’s made us call more conservatively, knowing that we have the extra down to get it.”
Army’s all-ground attack is happening amid a pass-crazy era of pervasive spread offense. Army’s triple option and the modern college offense are aesthetic opposites. In geometry and pace, they are poles. Conceptually, they share the same principles. “A lot of those spread teams, a lot of their concepts are really the fundamentals of our offense,” Davis said.
The run-pass option, viewed as football’s latest innovative craze, uses the same concept as the triple option, except the pitch back is a wide receiver, and the defender being optioned off is a defensive back. Most college offenses rely on accurate quarterbacks and speedy receivers. Army puts the same forces in play, but by using aggressive linemen, a brilliant quarterback and rugged running backs.
“There are a lot more option principles in college football now than there has been in years — decades,” Monken said. “A lot of the things we’re doing are very similar in nature. They may do it a different way, but it’s the same.”
‘There’s a cultural change’
The Black Knights have grown comfortable in their status as an outlier. Last Saturday, Ejekam didn’t even know the Black Knights hadn’t attempted a pass until afterward. Coaches believe in their system, and players believe in the coaches.
“We know exactly who we are,” Corrigan said. “Jeff knows exactly who he is and exactly what we do. That’s the sign of a good coach: know who you are, know what you are, know what your guys are good at.”
When Monken arrived, Army had gone 8-28 in the previous three years. He installed what he calls “The Plan,” a blueprint for every game with five keys: Be the tougher team; be more fundamentally sound; follow seven commandments (they include winning the turnover battle and no foolish penalties); play together with superior effort; and, finally, don’t flinch. The tenets are tacked to walls and pop up on computer-screen backgrounds throughout the team’s facility.
“There’s a cultural change: You know what? We’re going to win,” Monken said. “It’s fun to be a part of that. That’s always been my expectation. It’s frustrating when it doesn’t happen. It was frustrating our first year. It was frustrating our second year. It was frustrating last year. We were 5-5 [before finishing 8-5]. That’s not good enough. [This season’s] 7-2 isn’t good enough. You have an expectation. You got standards to meet those expectations. So, keep the standards high so we can meet the expectations. We still got a lot of work to do.”
Their success, though, has spread through campus. Instructors and fellow cadets tell players they can’t wait to see another win. Last weekend, Army went 5-0 in athletic competitions against Air Force. Across all sports, including the club level, Army is 6-0-2 against Navy this year.
“Do they take that from football?” Corrigan said. “They’ve got pride in what they’re doing. But the sun feels a little bit warmer when you’re winning in football.”
“I don’t even think I can put that into words,” Boylan said. “It’s been a long road. Army football is always a special thing. I’m not sure as much emphasis was placed on the winning spirit and what it actually means. The nation doesn’t expect the army to go out there and take L’s. We represent them. That has to be our mind-set as well.”
Saturday night in Colorado Springs, Army’s bus took players from the stadium to the airport. Players, coaches and administrators lingered on the tarmac, under a harvest moon, and savored another watershed moment for their program. They would fly home, back to a campus where the players would walk through the members of their corps and hear their names shouted. For now, they wanted to stay, for a few moments longer, on the ground.
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