It’ll Take An Army: Football Prepares For West Point


Quinn Burns/Villanovan Photography

Villanova football plays its only FBS opponent of the season this Saturday.

Colin Beazley, Co-Editor-in-Chief

During the Tulsa-Navy game in October 2021, TV channel ESPN2 shared a simple graphic titled, “Games you don’t want to face an option team.”

The graphic had three choices for when you don’t want to face an option team: the first game of the season, the last game, and any game between the first and last game.

On Saturday, Villanova will face that unenviable task as the Wildcats travel to West Point to take on Army. While any FCS team is tasked with an uphill battle when preparing to take on FBS opposition, any team playing one of the service academies has a greater challenge because it has to defend an offense unlike any other in college football: the triple option.

The triple option is an offense that relies almost exclusively on running the ball. On every play, the quarterback has two options: hand the ball off to a running back or run it himself. If he chooses to run it himself, he has a third option to pitch the ball to a running back running beside him, hence the name “triple option.”

Army’s offense is old-fashioned, yet necessary. It was used widely to great success in the 1980s and 1990s, but as football has evolved, most teams have stopped using it. 

However, it is still used by the nation’s three service academies: Army, Navy and Air Force. All three schools have strict fitness requirements for graduation, meaning that their linemen must be smaller than traditional college linemen. Because of this, the teams would be at a disadvantage with bigger rushers coming at them while trying to protect a passing quarterback. The service academies have adapted by largely refusing to throw the ball, choosing instead to attack opposing defenses on the ground with an offense that depends on quick decision making — a skill widely found at military schools.

While Army has won nine games in four of the last five seasons, the Black Knights come into the matchup with Villanova with an 0-2 record, falling on the road to Coastal Carolina, 38-28, and at home in overtime against UTSA, 41-38. 

The Army offense is led by senior quarterback Cade Ballard. Ballard’s stats aren’t eye-catching, throwing for 309 yards over two games and running for 48 more. The Black Knights have attempted just 26 passes on the season, with eight in their season opener. However, Army did throw for 304 yards last weekend against UTSA, its highest total since 2001.

Army leads the nation in passing efficiency, yet Army head coach Jeff Monken said postgame that he hopes to return to traditional Army football.

“Everyone wants to talk about the passing yards we had,” Monken said. “We threw the ball for a bunch of yards, who cares. We don’t win that way. We win by running the ball and stopping the run.”

As Army runs the ball so frequently, its carries are shared between many players. Five players have run the ball between 14 and 23 times, led by junior running back Jacobi Buchanan. Buchanan has scored three touchdowns despite not having a run over nine yards this season. Sophomore running back Tyrell Robinson has carried 17 times for 160 yards, but the bulk of his yardage came on a 70-yard scamper against Coastal Carolina.

While Army has no true star on offense, that can’t be said of its defense. Senior linebacker Andre Carter II had 15.5 sacks in 2021, totalling 18.5 tackles for loss. The 6’7”, 260 pound Carter has drawn NFL buzz, a rarity for a player from a service academy. Ahead of the NFL Draft in April, Carter is projected by some to be the first Black Knight drafted in the first round since 1947.

Army enters the game looking for its first win while Villanova travels to West Point hoping to continue an unbeaten start to the season. Villanova has yet to be challenged this year, routing Lehigh, 45-17, before overcoming its own mistakes to beat LIU, 38-21.

Junior quarterback Connor Watkins has stepped in this season after backing up Daniel Smith. Watkins threw for nearly 300 yards and three TD in his first start, but he threw four interceptions last weekend against LIU. Villanova head coach Mark Ferrante chalked it up to early season struggles, describing it as “a second opener.”

To pull off the upset, Villanova will need to minimize mistakes and stay disciplined on both sides of the ball. Ferrante said that Villanova has dedicated time towards defending the triple option since Spring practices, but knows that there’s only so much you can do.

“No matter what you do in advance, you’re never going to be ready to go until you get there,” Ferrante said.

Villanova has played Army 21 times throughout the program’s history, winning just three times. In the first four matchups between the two schools, Villanova failed to score a single point, suffering shutout losses in 1908, 1910, 1913 and 1914. The Wildcats suffered the same fate again in eight straight games spanning from 1919 to 1948, including an 83-0 loss to the national champion Black Knights in 1944. The teams last played in 1977, with Army winning, 34-32, but Villanova won 10-0 two years prior.

The game kicks off Saturday in West Point at noon. It will be televised on CBSSN.