High (Scoring) Cotton: Army Wins Heart of Dallas Bowl

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Army Wins Heart of Dallas Bowl
DALLAS, TX - DECEMBER 27: Quinten Parker #85 of the Army Black Knights celebrates after defeating the North Texas Mean Green 38-31 during the Zaxby's Heart of Dallas Bowl on December 27, 2016 at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, Texas. (Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images)

Army Wins Heart of Dallas Bowl

In what was expected to be one of the least entertaining bowl games of the 2017 post-season, Army defeated North Texas in a thrilling Heart of Dallas Bowl. Army needed overtime to put away North Texas after squandering leads of 17 and 10 points. The game wraps up the best season for the Cadets since 1996 and avenges an October loss to the Mean Green. Army turned the ball over seven times in the previous game. For North Texas, they have the dubious distinction of being the only 5-8 team in the modern era of college football. They also wrap up the Conference USA bowl slate with a loss, bringing C-USA to 4-3 this bowl season.

Inside the Numbers

The Black Knights ran for a bowl record 480 yards on the day, grinding down the Mean Green defense. Army’s defense, which entered the game fourth nationally in total defense, yielded 410 yards to North Texas including Alec Morris‘ career-high 304 yards of passing offense. Army’s offensive performance was a prototypical triple option game plan. Head Coach Jeff Monken’s offense had four drives of 9+ plays in the game. That includes an incredible 18-play drive that took 10:35 off the clock in the fourth quarter. That drive, however, didn’t result in points. The Black Knights had two other drives with big plays, one a Tyler Campbell 70-yard run and the other an Ahmad Bradshaw 65-yard run. Both Bradshaw and fullback Darnell Woolfolk had over 100 yards rushing in the game. Bradshaw, a junior, was named Bowl MVP.

The Army defense couldn’t quite keep up with the offense, though. North Texas quarterback Alec Morris, the Alabama graduate transfer, had a career day. He passed for 304 yards on 26/38 (68%) and threw 3 touchdowns. Morris started in place of the injured Mason Fine for the last two regular season games and the bowl game. Running back Jeffrey Wilson, who was doubtful for the game, added 81 yards on the ground. Wilson became ill on the field late in the first half to provide one of the many unique highlights of the day. Even so, Army linebacker Jeremy Timpf finished with 15 tackles on 67 total plays, bringing his career total to 321, good for ninth on the Army all-time list.

(Not So) Special Teams

Army’s special teams were almost their downfall. Army missed the first extra point attempt, and then attempted and failed a two-point conversion in the subsequent three touchdowns. All totaled, Army missed out on four points worth of extra points in the first half. Additionally, North Texas converted a fake field goal in the third quarter. Army’s only turnover of the day was on a muffed punt and North Texas scored a touchdown on the next play. Army’s shaky special teams play prevented field goal attempts late in the fourth quarter and in overtime. It ended up not mattering in the end, but very nearly cost Army the game.

Down to the Wire

North Texas trailed Army from the second series of the game until almost the very end. After Army turned it over on downs after an 18-play drive, North Texas had two minutes left in the game. The Mean Green quickly moved down the field, but couldn’t get into the end zone. North Texas kicked a field goal with 28 seconds to tie the game and force overtime. Army relied on their run game and scored the game winning touchdown on fourth and goal from the two yard line.

North Texas couldn’t match the score in their possession. Even after Morris’ banner day, the senior threw incomplete on fourth down to end the game. Morris played under pressure most of the day, but particularly during overtime. Army’s defense is most vulnerable on the back end, and the back of the end zone helped them contain Morris’ arm in the extra period.

Unexpected Excitement

The game was widely panned by analysts as least attractive of all of the bowls this postseason. It turned out to be one of the best — if not the best — of the bowl season thus far. The historic Cotton Bowl played host to beautiful weather, and almost 40,000 fans supported both teams. North Texas is only 40 miles from Dallas and there’s a large military population in Texas, but the game’s drama and offensive fireworks translated those natural advantages into an exciting bowl environment. Those that claim that there are too many bowls can’t use this game in their arsenal.

Looking Forward

For Army, the program now has to manage success for the first time in two decades. This is the most wins in a season since 1996 for the cadets. It’s only the second winning season and bowl appearance in that span as well. And, just as important, it’s the first year with win over Navy in 14 years. Some might question the strength of Army’s schedule. They did have two wins over FCS schools and were crushed by Notre Dame. But Army did have wins over American Athletic Conference Champion Temple, a top 25-ranked Navy, and an ACC bowl team in Wake Forest. Most of Army’s offensive skill players will return next year, so the offense should continue to click at a high pace. The defense will lose two of their four linebackers — the strength of the unit — but will bring back seven total starters.

With the returning talent, there’s no reason Army can’t return to a bowl game. But that must be the minimum expectation. Army will get a shot at six bowl teams next season, including Ohio State, Air Force, and Navy. If Army wants to continue getting to the eight-win mark and start to make some real waves in the college football world, they’ll have to win some of those games. And most importantly, they will have to win consistently against the other Service Academies. Army has only two wins against both Navy and Air Force in the last two seasons. These teams often recruit the same athletes, so it’s imperative that Army start to consistently win against Air Force and Navy to keep the program’s new found forward momentum.

Keep Up The Momentum?

It’s been a long time since Army has experienced sustained success on the gridiron. Is this the start of a new era at West Point? Or is it just a flash in the pan? Like this year’s Heart of Dallas Bowl, maybe Army can continue to surprise people into the 2017 campaign.

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