2013 SEASON IN REVIEW: The Black Knights got off on the right foot in 2013, entertaining Morgan State near the end of August and using the opportunity to capture a 28-12 victory over the Bears, but the rest of the schedule proved to be a much tougher test for the Academy.
It had been since 2010 that Army had managed to put together a winning record, and unfortunately the tide didn't appear to be changing in the program's favor for 2013. In fact, the Knights dropped three straight after the season-opening victory, bowing to the likes of Ball State, fifth-ranked Stanford and Wake Forest, before finally regaining some balance with a surprising 35-16 romp over Louisiana Tech in Dallas in late September.
Following a 48-27 loss at Boston College, Army did capture another victory with a 50-25 triumph over Eastern Michigan, but from there on out the team knew nothing but heartbreak.
Against even questionable competition, the Black Knights went down to Temple, Air Force, Western Kentucky, Hawaii and, eventually, Navy (34-7) in the annual showdown in Philadelphia in December.
Once the smoke had cleared Army was facing a record of 3-9 overall and was winless in five true road dates. When you consider LaTech and EMU finished with a combined 6-18 mark, even those triumphs seemed to carry less weight.
Unfortunately for head coach Rich Ellerson, a three-year run with a combined record of only 8-28 did little to solidify his position as a leader at West Point and following the loss to the Midshipmen he was relieved of his duties.
"Rich Ellerson has represented West Point and the Army football program extremely well since taking over as our head coach five years ago," said Army Director of Athletics Boo Corrigan said days after the loss to Navy. "He has been a tremendous role model for our cadet-athletes and great mentor for many within the athletic department.
"Unfortunately, our team has not experienced the level of success on the football field that we expect, and we feel it is necessary to make a change in leadership at this time."
Less than two weeks after letting Ellerson go, the Knights found their new head coach in Jeff Monken, the former head coach at Georgia Southern University.
"We want a successful head coach who understands the challenges of working at a service academy, one who could help us win immediately and one who understands the importance of West Point's mission. We found that in Jeff," said Corrigan.
OFFENSE: As has been the case for Black Knights for quite some time now, the offense is based around the running game. Last season, the program was third in the country with 309.8 ypg on the ground, but that effort clearly did not equate to success in the win column.
There are a host of players who get their hands on the ball coming out of the backfield every week, but for the sake of continuity, the main performers for this conversation involve Larry Dixon, Terry Baggett and Trenton Turrentine. Baggett set a new single-game rushing record for the Black Knights with a staggering 304 yards versus Eastern Michigan, yet he finished the season with only 1,113 yards (12 games). He will again be a focal point of the offense, but don't expect him to have another break-out game as he did against the Eagles.
Dixon was responsible for another 715 yards and scored six touchdowns, two fewer than Baggett, while Turrentine landed in the end zone only once on his 56 attempts, but did spark some key plays with an average of 6.8 yards per carry.
Quarterback Angel Santiago, who figures to reprise his role this season as the on-field leader, led everyone with 10 rushing touchdowns, although there were times when he was scrambling for survival, rather than on designed plays drawn up to gain big yardage. Santiago completed only 49.5 percent of his pass attempts for 597 yards and two touchdowns. Needless to say, with an average of only 78.0 ypg through the air, Army was bringing up the rear in that department in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
Army used the same starting five along the offensive line for all 12 games last season, which was just what the team needed in order to preserve the success on the ground. But there are some pieces that will need to be replaced this time around, which might cause the rushing attack to take a step back in the early going.
DEFENSE: One would think that in practice the defense for the Black Knights would be geared toward stopping the run, and while that may have been the case, the unit still had trouble slowing down opponents in that department last season. In 2013, Army's foes ran for 213.3 ypg, ranking the defense 103rd in the country.
Unfortunately, the pass defense was not much better, at least in terms of efficiency, as the unit finished with a rating of 160.47 (115th nationally).
Although he missed four games due to injury, Geoffery Bacon stepped up to become a major contributor for the Black Knights a year ago, finishing second on the unit in total tackles with 63. Bacon, who made the move from linebacker to safety for last season, led the team and was one of the nation's leaders in tackles in 2012 when he generated a staggering 136 stops.
Along the defensive line the group brings back Robert Kough who led the team in sacks (three) and tackles for loss (eight), even though he made a total of just 33 tackles in 11 appearances.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Daniel Grochowski figures to have a handle on the placekicking duties again this season, after knocking through 8-of-11 field goal attempts in 2013. Then again, Grochowski made only one field goal in the final six games, based more on the fact that he wasn't called upon, so that gives you an indication of how the Black Knights felt about turning the ball over to Grochowski.
Alex Tardieu will be penciled in as the punter yet again, although averaging just 37.3 yards per kick is far from encouraging for a team that has drives stall quite a bit. Tardieu had only four kicks of at least 50 yards, so some competition at the position may not be a bad thing.
In terms of punt and kickoff returns, whomever the Black Knights select to fill those spots, chances are they will do better than last year's group which averaged only 3.36 yards (115th nationally) on punt returns and 15.3 yards (121st) on kickoffs.
OUTLOOK: "Our senior class has a lot of goals in mind and it's across the board, not just met," Santiago noted in the middle of August. "We want to make a bowl game. We actually had to write down some of our goals today and I hope we truly sit down and talk about our goals as team and as a unit. You know, what we want to accomplish."
Unfortunately, reaching the goals he has for himself and the rest of the Black Knights will be rather tough given the schedule set before them in 2014. After a home date against Buffalo in the opener, the Knights are on the road for three straight versus Stanford, Wake Forest and Yale. Clearly, the meeting with the Bulldogs in New Haven, CT is a winnable outing, but outside of that and a clash with Fordham late in November, the wins will be few and far between.