The last time the Oklahoma Sooners faced off against the Army Black Knights, JFK was in the White House, the legendary Bud Wilkinson was coaching at Oklahoma, Colorado went a perfect 9-0, and the average price for a new home was a whopping $2,770. The year was 1961, and clearly a lot has changed since then. Nowadays, $2,770 pays for about a month of rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Southern California.
As for the football programs of Army and Oklahoma, a lot has changed as well. When the teams played in 1961, both were former elite programs on a downward trend. Army dominated College Football in the 1940’s, while Oklahoma dominated College Football in the 1950’s. Army claimed three national titles in the 1940’s(1944, 1945, 1946) and produced two Heisman trophy winners. Oklahoma had similar success the following decade during the peak of the Bud Wilkinson era. During golden decade of Sooner football, the program claimed three national titles(1950, 1955, 1956), won 47 games in a row, and produced one Heisman trophy winner. Despite beating Army 14-8 during their 1961 matchup, Oklahoma had to win five straight to finish 5-5.
This time around, I would bet the farm that the score will not be 14-8. Army has not been an elite program for some time but gives a lot of teams trouble with a vaunted triple-option attack. It will be up to Kenneth Murray and co. to find ways to slow down the only triple-option attack they’ll see this season.
Date: Saturday September 22
Time & TV: 6 P.M. CT on FS Oklahoma PPV, Soonersports.com, AFN
Spread: Oklahoma -31
Here are some key storylines to follow on Saturday!
Army triple-option attack
When looking at the the numbers on the season for the Army triple-option attack, what obviously stands out the time of possession. Army averages an astonishing time of possession of 39 minutes and 38 seconds per game while their opponents average a measly 20 minutes and 22 seconds per game. While this wears out opposing defenses, it also limits the opposing offenses. In Army’s first three games; Duke, Liberty, and Hawaii managed to run a grand total of 157 plays against them. This means that teams average around 52 plays a game against Army. To put this into context, Texas Tech ran a total of 100 plays last week in their 63-49 win over Houston. With the high-powered offenses in college football today, it’s typical for a team to be able to get into the 75-100 range in terms of number of plays ran in a game, but this doesn’t happen when service academies are on the opposing sideline.
The more Kyler Murray is off the field, the better for Army, obviously. They plan to do this by utilizing their dual-threat — QB Kelvin Hopkins Jr., who is coming off a great game against Hawaii in which he ran for 110 yards and threw for 162. Hopkins Jr. also has the option of handing the ball off to senior Darnell Woolfolk, who is a load to bring down at 5’9” and 235.
Oklahoma rush defense
To stymie the triple-option, both the defensive line and the linebackers will have to work together to stay in their gaps, know their assignments, and get into the backfield to stop runs before they get started. This all starts with MIKE LB Kenneth Murray, who has emerged as a leader on the defense even though he is still only a sophomore. In his role, Murray is the quarterback of the defense and is responsible for reading opposing offenses. After a quiet Week 1 (statistically, at least), Murray has been on point the last two weeks, totaling 19 tackles and two sacks. To be successful, Murray will also need help from fellow linebackers Curtis Bolton, Ryan Jones, and Mark Jackson.
In front of the linebackers, guys like Neville Gallimore, Amani Bledsoe, Kenneth Mann, Ronnie Perkins and Dilon Faamatau will have to continue their strong play. The defensive line has played really well so far and has been a strength of the defense up to this point. Although the overall pass rush was lackluster in the first half against Iowa State, they were good against the run all day and limited David Montgomery to 82 yards on 21 carries. They will need to do the same against Kelvin Hopkins Jr. and co. on Saturday against a much different attack than they are accustomed to.
Due to the way we’ll likely see them approach this, we could see Oklahoma’s corners being left on an island to defend against deep shots in certain instances. Make no mistake, this 2018 Army team will take some deep shots down the field and the secondary needs to be prepared for that as well. I expect Parnell Motley to bounce back this game and get another pick. It would also be refreshing to see Robert Barnes back on the field after he missed Week 2 with an injury and played sparingly last week. Barnes has shown flashes of talent but has had trouble staying on the field so far in his Sooner career. The DBs will also be called upon in run support in this game, an area in which they have often looked impressive.
Oklahoma rushing attack
While slowing down the Army rushing attack is one of the top priorities on Saturday, the Oklahoma rushing attack will also be a point of emphasis for this team. Three games into the 2018 season, the Oklahoma ground game hasn’t been bad, but its left a bit to be desired at times — particularly in the absence of Rodney Anderson. Against both UCLA and Iowa State, the offensive line sometimes struggled to open up holes for Trey Sermon and Marcelius Sutton. I actually thought that Sermon himself played pretty well last Saturday in Ames. Sermon rushed to the tune of 74 yards while having defenders meet him in the backfield on a vast majority of his carries. If the offensive line starts to get some push up front, I think Sermon will start to pile up some 100+ yard games on the ground.
Starting Saturday, I think the Oklahoma offensive line will start to turn things around for a couple reasons. First of all, Creed Humphrey has taken control of the starting center spot, which should give this unit more cohesiveness and stability. On top of that, Cody Ford and Bobby Evans will be a couple games in should start to get some more push run-blocking on the outside. They are both adjusting to new roles, so as the season goes on I expect them to get better. At the guard spots, stalwarts Dru Samia and Ben Powers have proven they can successfully run-block in prior seasons, so I have no doubt they can do the same this season. If this unit gets going like it did late last season, the Oklahoma offense will be even more lethal.
Countering the Oklahoma rushing attack on the other side of the ball will be an Army rush defense that is allowing 4.72 yards per rush. They have limited the carries for each opponent because of their triple-option attack on the other end, but this is an area that can be exploited.
Anchoring the Army defensive front is senior linebacker James Nachtigal, who posted 103 tackles a season ago and has been good against the run so far this year. Next to Nachtigal is junior linebacker Cole Christiansen, who is also a tackling machine.
Can Grant Calcaterra break through?
One of the players that has not quite lived up to the expectations is tight end Grant Calcatera, who has made a couple big plays over the first three games but has failed to be a consistent threat in the middle of the field and the red zone. To make matters worse, he had a costly fumble last week after a long catch against Iowa State. Hopefully Kyler Murray, Coach Riley and some of the other guys in the locker room can help him get his mind right before the game this Saturday. I am sure Riley had a long talk with him about ball security after his fumble in Ames.
If Riley is able to unleash Calcaterra as yet another weapon in this offense, I think it can rise to an even higher level, which is saying something. The Oklahoma offense was at it’s best last year when it had Rodney Anderson running the ball, Lamb and Brown on the outside, and Mark Andrews working the seam routes in the middle of the field. Calcaterra may not be quite as big as Andrews, but he has all the tools to be a dominant Y-receiver. He just has to put it all together. He has gotten some chances in the red zone so far this season, but has yet to register a touchdown catch. Hopefully Calcaterra can find some rhythm this weekend and becomes more of a weapon that Kyler Murray can utilize.
After a tight-ish victory against Iowa State, I think Oklahoma turns it up to another level in this game and cruises to a comfortable victory — even if the margin of victory might not necessarily indicate it. I already had $50 added to my monthly DirecTV bill after ordering this game, so I’ll be watching this one from start to finish.
Prediction: Oklahoma 44 , Army 14