September 16, 2012

Army's Defensive Struggles

The scoreboard may look deceiving, but the defense made vast improvements throughout the course of Saturday's game. Yes, last week San Diego State scored 42 on Army and this week Northern Illinois lit it up for 41. Those numbers are high, but the Black Knights held the Huskies to 13 points in the second half as opposed to 28 in the first. Though the Black Knights suffered a loss, their resiliency to bounce back after being thoroughly beat last week was evident on every down.

"What a difference a week makes just in terms of our competitiveness," shared Army Head Coach Rich Ellerson during his post game press conference. "We were competing. We knew we had a tough row to hoe. We didn't anticipate getting into the hole we did defensively, but to their credit they found a way to get a couple of stops and got some takeaways. We played them off their feet. Offensively, that's what it looks like when we're operating and feeling good about what we're doing. The defense scrambled, but they found a way to get a couple of stops. I'm pleased we competed, but we have a long way to go. The good news is that if we wondered at all if we could play at a high level and compete with good football teams, now we know that. It's not the same as winning, but it means you have a chance if you continue to grow in the things that do win."

From the opening defensive stand, Army gave up huge plays in the air and on the ground. In the second defensive series, NIU's quarterback Jordan Lynch slipped through the line and broke free for an 88 yard touchdown run on the fourth play in a 98 yard drive. In the next series, the Huskies scored in three plays, running a wide-receiver reverse in for the touchdown. Much of the same happened in the fourth series with 3:40 left in the first quarter, Lynch connected on a 69 yard touchdown pass with Army's Justin Trimble trailing behind in coverage.

In the second half, the defense finally forces a three and out and this time they switched in defensive tackles Bobby Kough and Mike Ugenyi for sophomores Joe Drummond and Richard Glover who played in the first two defensive series in the second half. With 9:53 left in the third quarter, NIU began its drive with a devastating 44 yard bomb with former starting cornerback Tyler Dickson in coverage. After a few more advancing plays, Lynch kept the ball and carried it to the Army one but fumbled the ball as Army's Nate Combs recovered for a game-changing touchback that allowed the Black Knights' offense to put up another touchdown to make the score 34-28 Army.

With plenty of time and both teams clearly showing firepower on offense, NIU wasted no time and marched the ball 50 yards on five plays with a 31 yard touchdown over the outreached arms of Dickson once again, putting NIU up, 35-34. Minutes later, the defense took the field and Combs popped the football out of Lynch's hands and Ugenyi recovered it at the NIU 15 yard line, leading to a Trent Steelman Josh Jackson quick touchdown. This was Army's last score, putting them up 40-35.

The most important defensive stand started at 8:48 of the fourth quarter. NIU slowly advanced the ball and it came down to 3rd & 12 at the Army 47. Carefully, Lynch connected on a 28 yard pass to make the first down and keep the game alive. Finally at the Army 8, NIU scored on an 8 yard catch with Dickson once again in coverage. Final Score: NIU - 41, Army - 40.

One of the main issues for Army was its lack of pressure on the quarterback. Both Ugenyi and Kough are new in their starting assignments at defensive tackles this season and last week they proved ineffective against a much larger San Diego State offensive line. Although there was increased activity on the line compared to last week, Jordan Lynch had his way with the Army defense. Northern Illinois Head Coach Dave Doerer described Lynch as a quarterback trapped in a linebacker's body. His talent running the ball and throwing the deep ball gave the Army defense a nightmare to guard.

Notables: Keep an eye on juniors Thomas Holloway, and Kyle Maxwell. These two players are the only remaining walk-ons on the varsity defense squad. Last year, Holloway played in all twelve games and started in seven. During spring training he moved from the safety to the "rover" linebacker position and was listed as the backup. However, during today's game he earned the starting job and proves to be a legitimate player that the defense can depend on. Maxwell is the backup for junior defensive End Holt Zalneraitis and he logged one solo tackle today against NIU. Look for these two impressive walk-ons throughout the season as significant difference makers in this team's defense.

Also, sophomore middle linebacker Geoffrey Bacon led the team with 9 tackles, and acted as the "Ray Lewis" of the defense, bringing intensity and emotion after every tackle, firing up the rest of the corps. His presence in defending the run game is critical with his ability to clean up on almost every run up the middle.

Hopefully the defense can show versatility in defending the pass and the run next week when they take on Wake Forest.

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