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UConn football opponent preview: Army

The Huskies will be on the road as they take on another independent program that’s going to be a frequent future opponent.

NCAA Football: Air Force at Army Danny Wild-USA TODAY Sports

As a member of the American Athletic Conference, UConn was no stranger to the service academies. Navy became a football-only member of the conference that the Huskies played three times since 2015 before the Huskies declared football independence in 2019. UConn also had a home-and-home series with Army during that time.

This is likely to continue, as many of the non-Notre Dame independents — New Mexico State, UMass, Liberty, and BYU — play each other frequently since they all share the same scheduling challenges and lulls in their calendar.

By Bill Connelly’s SP+ metric, Army is technically the Huskies’ toughest opponent in the first quarter of their 2021 season. Since Fresno State and Purdue are likely to be heavy favorites, this September 18th matchup at Michie Stadium is probably going to be the best barometer for this UConn team in this early part of the season. Historically, the Huskies have done well against Army, going 5-1 against the Black Knights since moving up to FBS.

Head Coach and Recent History

The Black Knights are led by Jeff Monken, who took over as Army head coach before the 2014 season. In seven seasons, Monken is 49-39 overall and posted a program-best 11-2 season in 2018. He’s led Army to three Commander In Chief’s trophies and is 4-3 all-time against Navy in a rivalry that the Midshipmen had been dominating lately.

The first two seasons of the Monken era were rough, with the program winning just six games and extending their losing streak to Navy to 15 straight seasons. But in 2016, things started to turn, as the Black Knights posted an 8-5 record and finally beat Navy. From there, Monken and Army were rolling, posting 10+ win seasons in 2017 and 2018 before taking a step back with a 5-8 record in 2019.

The last time UConn and Army met was in 2015 at Rentschler Field, where UConn won 22-17 and Monken got a little testy with a reporter from The Daily Campus, UConn’s student newspaper.

NCAA Football: Massachusetts at Army Danny Wild-USA TODAY Sports
NCAA Football: Massachusetts at Army Danny Wild-USA TODAY Sports

2020 season

After a subpar 2019 season, Monken and the Black Knights got things back on track in 2020, going 9-2 in the regular season before falling to West Virginia in Autozone Liberty Bowl. Army outscored their first two opponents 79-7 to open the season before suffering a 24-10 loss to No. 14 Cincinnati. They rolled through Abilene Christian, The Citadel, UTSA, and Mercer before a 38-12 loss to Tulane.

The Black Knights snuck past Monken’s former school, Georgia Southern, to win 28-27 before defeating rivals Navy and Air Force to claim the Commander in Chief’s Trophy.

As always, the Army offense was a force to be reckoned with on the ground. The Black Knights led the country with 36 rushing touchdowns and finished second total rushing yards while averaging 273 ground yards per game. With impeccable execution of the triple-option offense, Army’s rushing attack was extremely balanced — four players posted more than 400 net rushing yards last season. Quarterback Tyhier Tyler emerged from the scout team late in the season to lead the pack, rushing for 578 yards in just seven games while adding 53 passing yards.

2021 outlook

Other than the fact that Army will run early, often, and efficiently, it’s hard to predict who exactly will lead the Black Knights at quarterback and the other key backfield positions. While Tyler showed explosiveness and helped Army beat Navy, it’s likely he will share time under center with Christian Anderson (419 rushing yards, 215 passing yards in seven games) and Jabari Laws, who did not play in 2020 due to injury but rushed for 484 yards in 2019.

Army will likely rotate through multiple QBs and fullbacks to keep players fresh and provide multiple looks. Outside of Tyler, running backs Jakobi Buchanan and Tyrell Robinson combined for nearly 900 yards on the ground last year and should be major factors this season. Robinson is arguably one of the most versatile players in the country, serving as Army’s leading receiver last season while also averaging 8.8 yards per punt return on special teams.

Defensively, Army is as stout as ever, with four players named to Phil Steele’s preseason all-independent team. Team captain Nolan Cockrill will anchor the defensive line for his final season after posting 28 tackles and 2.5 sacks in 2020. He’ll be tasked with opening up lanes for fellow captain Arik Smith, a linebacker who tied for the team lead with 78 tackles while adding 3.5 sacks and nine tackles for loss. Defensive backs Jabari Moore and Cedrcik Cunningham Jr should provide some help in stifling opponents’ passing games, as Moore led the team with three picks while Cunningham added an interception with 70 tackles.

Overall, 2021 is shaping up to be more of the same for Monken’s Army teams: an elite rushing offense, a solid defense, and the ability to hang around with just about any team in the country. Nearly every game on the schedule is winnable, including a trip to Wisconsin on Oct. 16, which means the Black Knights are likely once again competing for a bowl berth and another Commander In Chief’s trophy.

Prediction

The biggest issue with playing a service academy is figuring out how to contain the triple option. Fortunately, thanks to UConn’s old American Athletic Conference days against Navy, the concepts and terminology shouldn’t be totally unfamiliar to the more experienced players on the roster.

For the Huskies to win this one, they could really help themselves by getting an early lead. This is, of course, always good but it’s one of the things that can be deadly for a methodical offense like Army’s that may not have enough time to catch up. But if the Black Knights get out early, they can dominate time of possession and keep the UConn offense, however good it may be, off the field. It’s really hard to score when you don’t have the ball. Prediction: Army 28, UConn 17.