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Army defeats Powerful Hawai’i offense by keeping them off the field in spite of weak pass defense

Posted by John T. Reed on

I saw the fourth quarter of the Army-Hawai’i game at West Point yesterday. Army managed to hang on for a 28-21 victory—ending Hawai’i’s three-game win streak.

The story to me was that Hawai’i came in to the game having averaged 47 points a game including 59 against Navy. (43 against both CO State and Rice).

Army too slow to play man pass defense

My son Mike who coached high school football with me was watching with me. I marveled at Army doing well on DEFENSE against a team like HI which was described as having a “high-flying” offense. “How the hell is Army stopping HI? Army can’t recruit the speed you need to play man-to-man pass defense and they are too slow to cover their zones well.” 

Not to mention if you always use zone the opposing offense can flood the zone, run your DBs off away from the play with decoy routes. Defense at the NCAA and NFL levels is to a large extent disguising what pass defense you are in and disguising who is rushing on a given down. Hard to do that when you do not have the personnel to play man.

Sure enough, Army seemed to be in zone most of the time. I watched a long scoring drive by Army—NOT surprising for triple-option Army which has long led in time of possession. But on the first play from scrimmage after the kick “return” (no yards gained—excellent special teams play by Army), HI threw an 80-yard TD pass to a guy who got behind the Army zone defender. Letting a bad guy get behind you is the cardinal sin of zone pass defense. And the Army guy had no hope of catching up with the receiver after he caught the ball.

In other words, Army’s defense looked exactly like I would have expected—lots of zone pass defense and defenders too slow to get to the receiver while the ball was in the air.

Clock-eating drive

Then Army managed to grind out another clock-eating TD drive. But it looked like deja vu when HI got the ball, like they were going to get a TD then go for two to win.

HI started with a false-start penalty. Then they ripped off first down after first down to the Army 13. Then a two-yard pass to the 11. Then a big pass was ruled incomplete after review. Then Army broke up a pass.

Easier to play zone pass coverage in the red zone

I commented to Mike that I would not expect Army to do well stopping HI’s passes, but at least on the 11-yard line the nearness of the end line (back of the end zone) shrinks the size of the zones Army has to cover. And they were in zone still. It is common for teams to go to MAN coverage in goal-line defense so they can rush another guy or two.

Bad decision by HI QB

With fourth and 8, HI’s QB threw down the middle of the field to the end zone. He should not have. Army had two zone defenders there. One knocked the ball down. If he had not, the other behind him would likely have intercepted it. Bad decision by HI. So Army did, indeed, benefit from the tighter zones because of the nearness of the end line.

Army then took a couple of knees and it was over. 

So Army won, but I am not sure how. I saw good tackling, which I had not several years ago. Ditto special teams. 

41:18 of possession by Army

But I did NOT see speed. I did NOT see pressure on the QB (hard to get when you are in zone defense). I did NOT see delaying the receivers’ releases (which requires man coverage). In other words, Army cannot stop HI’s passing game and did not in the quarter that I saw. But somehow they did earlier. Maybe they won the game with a ball control, time-of-possession, ground game that simply kept HI’s offense off the field. NCAA football games last 60 minutes of game-clock time. Army held the ball for 41:18 in this game!

That makes sense to me. They should use my clock-management book to maximize time-of-possession, but I suspect my book is banned there.

Football Clock Management 5th edition book

At the end, it was not so much that Army won as that HI lost. Mainly, the bad decision by the HI QB on his final play. Army is now 2-1 having lost 34-14 to Duke and beat Liberty (who?). I wish them luck. They are going to need it with their pass defense.

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