Know Your Penn State Football Enemy: Army West Point Black Knights


As Penn State football fans there are few things more enjoyable than watching a game on a crisp autumn Saturday in Beaver Stadium.  The opportunity to enjoy college football is one of the countless benefits of our freedom and its important that we show our gratitude to military members when the occasion arises.  So it is only fitting that on the first Saturday in October Penn State plays host to the Army West Point Black Knights on Military Appreciation Day.

Expect the crowd to throw some red in with their regular blue and white apparel and a few “U.S.A.” chants to break out among the “We Are’s” that traditionally echo throughout Happy Valley.

Two second year coaches in James Franklin and Jeff Monken will be facing off in Beaver Stadium in what will be the 26th meeting overall between the two teams, but the first since 1979. Penn State holds a slight advantage in the series win column with a 13-10-2 record against Army.

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In the fifth game of the season, the Nittany Lions will once again find themselves playing in front of the blue and white faithful for the fourth week in a row. One of the three remaining FBS Independents, Army West Point figures to be a significant underdog in the contest.  Penn State’s size and talent will likely pose a formidable challenge for Army and Nittany Lion fans will be anticipating that the game will serve as a tune up before turning the focus on the bulk of the Big Ten slate that lies ahead.

Army West Point will hope that its sports re-branding that occurred earlier in 2015 (including logo changes and no longer referred to as just Army or Army Black Knights) will bring with it a change of fortune to the football field.  In Coach Monken’s inaugural season, Army went 4-8, falling to both Air Force and Navy. Despite having only six returning starters, Army will be looking to win its first Commander-in-Chief Trophy and make its first bowl game appearance since 1996.

Army’s 2014 rushing attack was prolific, finishing the season ranked fifth in the nation, averaging 296 yards per game. Last season, Army had the second fewest three-and-out drives in the country (19), behind only Georgia Tech. Unfortunately, Army’s passing attack failed to provide any offensive balance as it ranked last nationally. Although in the upcoming season Army will implement the same triple-option scheme, the players carrying the football will look drastically different.  Army will be replacing the majority of its skill position players, including last year’s starting quarterback and its top three running backs.

Senior signal caller, A.J. Schurr, started two games last season and looks to recover from a shoulder injury to lead the Army offense this season.  He is the team’s leading returning rusher with 320 yards and three touchdowns in 2014.

A host of inexperienced running backs will get their shot this season, including starting split backs, junior Joe Walker (75 yards and two touchdowns last year) and sophomore John Trainor, while Elijah St. Hilaire will also be battling for playing time in the backfield.  Senior Matt Giachinta and junior Aaron Kemper (152 and 158 yards, respectively in 2014) will be lined up at fullback for the majority of the offensive snaps.

Although last season Army averaged only eight pass attempts per game, it does return its leading receiver, Edgar Poe (199 yards on 10 receptions) who is expected to be flanked out in the single receiver sets.

If Army hopes to have success against the tough Penn State defense, it will have to start with its experienced offensive line, anchored by senior and returning starting center Matt Hugenburg.  In addition, right tackle Justin Gilbert who started every game in 2013 looks to return to form after missing last season with a torn ACL. Rounding out the front five, all with at least four starts each, are Drew Hennessy, Jaryn Villegas and Stefan Moreau.

On defense, Army West Point will replace six starters, including the entire defensive line from a unit that was ranked 90th in total defense a year ago and struggled at times to keep opponents out of the endzone. The top four tacklers do return this season, including leading tackler Jeremy Timpf, who will look to anchor the linebacker unit along with last season’s sack leader, Andrew King. John Voit, who played in 11 games last season, is poised to take over one of the ends with a host of newcomers looking to fill the other spots along the line.  Army’s secondary boasts significant experience on the corners, with returning starters Chris Carnegie and Josh Jenkins (six career interceptions).

Both Army’s kicker and punter are back in 2015 and they will look to improve upon the return game after coming in near the bottom nationally in both kickoff and punt returns.

The Black Knights will be marching into Beaver Stadium having yet to play a team of Penn State’s caliber in 2015. In addition, by October I would expect Penn State’s offense to be hitting its stride.  As Army’s triple-option offense will attempt to churn time off the clock it is important that Penn State score points when it has the opportunity, which is hopefully early and often against Army’s over-matched defense.

Penn State’s solid defense certainly stacks up favorably against Army’s inexperienced offense.  However, Army’s option scheme provides a unique challenge for the Nittany Lions that may take a few series to adjust to the game speed. Assuming Penn State’s defense plays disciplined, the talented front seven should be able to overpower Army’s line and spend a significant portion of the game in the backfield shutting down the running attack.

On Military Appreciation Day, Penn State will be expected to walk out of Beaver Stadium with a convincing victory against Army West Point.  Regardless of the outcome, hopefully the players, coaches and fans also walk out with a reaffirmed appreciation of the effort and sacrifice that Army West Point and the other U.S. service academies and military members make on and off the field so that we can all continue to enjoy our Saturdays.