Gridiron gamblers are all-too familiar with that awful scenario in which a head coach’s priorities are completely the opposite of what those who wagered on his squad would hope for. For instance, a team might be favored by (-18) on the point spread, but choose to sit on a 17-point lead early in the 4th quarter. Bettors with money on the line shout and scream for a passing play on 3rd down – but nope. It’s another conservative running play and a punt.
It’s even more frustrating when a coach’s instructions are totally in sync with the demands of those who bet on his team to cover…but a player defies his orders and causes the wager to lose anyway.
With about 90 seconds left in the 2018 Army-Navy Game, the Army Black Knights (minus-7 in the most-popular point spread for the contest) enjoyed a 10-7 lead and a goal-to-go situation just inches from pay dirt. Navy’s timeouts were spent, and West Point skipper Jeff Monken ran down the sideline signaling for QB Kelvin Hopkins Jr. to kill more of the remaining time before scoring a TD.
Alas, Hopkins Jr. quick-snapped and lunged across the goal line. Army took a 17-7 lead, but allowed Navy enough time to battle back with a field goal.
Just like that, my “point spread lock” on Army turned into a measly push instead.
But it’s telling that sportsbooks seemed to completely ignore the close Navy result in setting the point spread and moneylines for the Armed Forces Bowl.
If another 10-win team had barely scraped past the hapless Midshipmen, they might be de-valued before a bowl game against a tough program. But Vegas handicappers have grown used to seeing tight, low-scoring football from Commander-in-Chief rivalry games.
The Houston Cougars are one of the best teams from what is possibly the most underrated league in all of organized football. Yet Major Applewhite’s squad is a field goal underdog against Army at Amon G. Carter stadium on December 22nd.
Army vs Houston: Betting Odds and Analysis
Maybe the betting lines for the Armed Forces Bowl have more to do with Houston’s regular season finish than the Army Academy’s.
After 8 games, the Cougars appeared to be in the driver’s seat in the West Division of the American Athletic Conference. Houston had not lost a single contest outside of a wild 49-63 out-of-conference result against Texas Tech. A manageable schedule over the last 4 scrums included a visit to Southern Methodist and a game at John O’ Quinn Field against guest Tulane.
But the Houston offense was unremarkable against SMU, and the defense was even worse. The Cougars surrendered over 500 yards to QB Ben Hicks and the Mustangs in a 45-31 defeat. The D continued to struggle in November, giving up a combined 111 points to Temple and Memphis while star QB D’Erik King was carted off the field with a season-ending injury on 11/15. The pride of Space City finished the season 1-3 and lost out on an appearance in the AAC Championship Game.
Given their recent form, the Cougars might be fortunate that so much of the betting public still expects them to win a bowl game. Houston is a (+3) underdog ATS and carries a (+140) moneyline at MyBookie next to (-165) for West Point.
MyBookie’s Over/Under of (60) total points is almost a full touchdown + XP below the consensus opening O/U of (66.5). But bookies and gamblers have watched Army rack up points against weak defenses, making the line movement even more of an interesting story.
For betting purposes, the Army-Navy Game has become its own “bowl game” of sorts – interesting to watch and predict but not considered a real indicator of the next point tally. Yet whether it’s King’s absence or a realization that Army can play on both sides of the ball, the Over/Under is dropping like a rock. It’s not the weather – 12/22 in Fort Worth is likely to be just peachy.
Loyal readers know that not only do I consider Jeff Monken’s squad to be one of the best Army teams to happen along in a long time, but potentially the best service academy team in a long time.
Navy’s offense was bananas in 2016, and the defense and special teams played scrappy enough football to help the Middies reach the AAC title game. The Air Force Falcons of the Mountain West Conference also rode a terrific offense to 10-win campaigns in 2014 and 2016.
But there are a few factors that set the ’18 Army Black Knights above those teams. For one thing, the defense is outstanding. No, I don’t mean “outstanding for a service academy,” or outstanding for a mid-major. Believe it or not, Army has a defense that could compete in the Power-5.
Army gave up 49 points-in-regulation to Hawaii and Oklahoma combined. Hawaii has one of the best passing games in the Group of 5. Oklahoma’s offense could prove to be the best overall unit in the FBS in 2018-19, depending on how it goes for Kyler Murray & company in the College Football Playoff.
West Virginia gave up 50+ points to Oklahoma. So did TCU and Kansas State. Baylor gave up 66 points to the Sooners in 4 quarters. Army gave up 21.
Yes, the Black Knights controlled the ball mercilessly against OU. But the defense has been there to save the day on multiple occasions. When NFL-prospect passer Tyree Jackson of Buffalo zinged a 53-yard TD strike less than 2:00 into a Week 5 game, the Bulls appeared to be flying high. The visiting West Point defense allowed 6 points in the final 58+ minutes and did not allow a 75+ yard rusher.
Don’t handicap Army’s defense like an excellent unit for Army. Handicap them like a good defense, period. It’s the most athletic run-stopping unit Monken has coached in his career.
Hooray for Analytics
While the Black Knights lack superstar talent on offense, the coaches are using analytics to help produce long drives and turn a scarcity of big plays into a ball-control boon.
Perhaps inspired by Pulaski Academy and other prep-school teams which have dismissed the punting game almost entirely, Army has became one of the most effective 4th down offenses in modern FBS memory. Once West Point reaches their own 40 yard line, it’s 4-down territory. 3rd-and-5 or 3rd-and-6 is really just a routine 2nd down.
Army is bucking the trend of backfield-by-committee among Flexbone teams, featuring the powerful senior Darnell Woolfolk more than the next 4 running backs on the depth chart combined. When Miami (OH) sold-out to stop the Black Knights’ triple-option game on October 20th, Woolfolk gritted his teeth and plunged for 4.4 ypc and 2 touchdowns in a dramatic 31-30 win.
Hopkins Jr. is an explosive runner who does little wrong in the passing game, and should surpass 1000 yards through the air against Houston unless Army spends the entire afternoon in 3rd down and 3. 5’9” senior Jordan Asberry has 3 touchdown catches on the season.
If there’s a glaring weakness, it’s the kicking game. West Point has only attempted 2 field goals of 40+ yards in 2018, and senior PK John Abercrombie missed an important FG try in the Navy game.
It also bears mentioning that Army did not play a fierce schedule. The Army-OU battle was amazing, but the Black Knights lost 34-14 to Duke in their only other independent-vs-P5 match-up.
Can the Cougars Rebound?
Bowl season gives squads that were banged-up in October and November a chance to rest and refresh, and the underdog Houston Cougars are glad of it.
The skill positions haven’t been decimated, but depth in the RB and WR corps are especially important when playing a disciplined upstart in the postseason. Army’s front-7 has proven that it can deal with superior athletes, but the Black Knights will have trouble if the Cougars are able to spread the egg around to 7 or 8 talented receivers and tailbacks.
Houston has rushed for well over 5 yards per carry in 2018, and King passed and rushed for a combined 3500+ yards and 50 touchdowns in 11 games. Unfortunately his backup has been unable to turn 2nd-down-and-short into the same type of explosive aerial attack. Freshman QB Clayton Tune has been singing mostly out of key in 2 straight appearances, contributing zilch to the ground game while completing under 45% of his throws.
RB Terence Williams has been down with an undisclosed injury, but could return by 12/22 to help complement junior Patrick Carr in the backfield. More importantly, receivers Keith Corbin (who leads the WR corps with 10 TDs) and Courtney Lark are also on the mend.
Houston played very bad run defense against Memphis in a 52-31 loss on November 23rd. But it’s not as if the Cougar defense didn’t make plays or produce more chances than the offense was able to take advantage of. Tall sophomore defensive back Gleson Sprewell intercepted Memphis’ Brady White twice, once for a pick-6. Linebacker Emeke Egbule produced 11 total tackles and a sack. But the eventual division runners-up abandoned the running game too early, and Tune was overwhelmed as the Tigers piled-on points at the end.
2018 Armed Forces Bowl: My Pick on the Over/Under
When Navy visited Houston near the end of 2015 sporting an unbeaten conference record, the Cougars employed what can best be described as a “cruel” game plan against the Mids, throwing 15+ bubble screens and flair passes to take advantage of superior speed and depth on the outside.
I suspect Applewhite will try a similar tactic to get his frosh QB into a rhythm and produce points against Army.
The rush of “under” bets may be somewhat misguided. It’s true that an AAC defense will be a physical match-up for Army’s ground game, and you can throw-away those bad rush-defense stats against Memphis because the Memphis and Army offenses have nothing in common. Stopping the Flexbone is a knack – even a “bad” defense can stop it if the squad has time to prepare and plays with heart.
Yet it’s not bad for the point total if Houston stops Army a few more times than Buffalo did. It’s good for the point total. Houston’s offense will be moving fast when it moves, while the Black Knights can take up an entire quarter with a single drive.
If Tune is hitting the mark on at least his short pass attempts, and if Army’s offense is inconsistent, then I’m imagining a scrum with a lot of snaps and stoppages. While Army is more likely to win, the total is also more likely to go over…especially now that bettors have driven the Vegas total way down.