Army's rise to prominence fulfills promise made when Monken was hired
By SAL INTERDONATO | The Times Herald-Record (Tribune News Service) | Published: January 7, 2018
People laughed when Jeff Monken mentioned Army football gaining national attention four years ago. Talk of achieving a top-25 ranking was deemed ludicrous.
Army had won just eight games total over the previous three seasons and experienced just two winning seasons over a 20-year stretch. Still, Monken remained steadfast on a promise that he made when named the Academy's 37th head coach.
Monken vowed to bring Army to a championship level. The promise became a reality on the service-academy stage when Army laid claim to its first Commander in Chief's title in 21 years with a 14-13 win over Navy last month.
The Black Knights capped their 10-win season with a 42-35 victory over San Diego State, adding another piece of hardware, the Armed Forces Bowl trophy.
Army focused on the run more than any other season. The Black Knights completed just 20 passes, posted only two touchdown receptions and managed to beat Fordham, Eastern Michigan and Air Force without the need of a completion.
The Black Knights achieved four of their top five preseason goals: winning the CIC, going undefeated at home (6-0), winning the fourth-quarter scoring battle and winning a bowl game.
It was only two months ago when Monken called a reporter "delusional" for the suggestion that Army was top-25 worthy after a 23-0 win at Air Force improved the Black Knights' record to 8-2. Fast forward two wins later and Monken and his players are eagerly awaiting the final Associated Press and Amway Coaches polls to be released this week, hopeful of a top-25 finish that would complete their preseason goals.
The website Bleacher Report ranked Army No. 25 in its final poll of four voters. Army was one of 26 teams to have 10 or more wins this season.
"We have received some votes in the top 25 throughout the year," Monken said. "Perhaps, there's a chance for us to finish in the top 25 this year. That would be a thrill for our team. It's been a goal of ours this year."
Army lived up to its "fourth-quarter warrior" mantra recited at the end of every practice by winning three games (Eastern Michigan, Navy and San Diego State) in the final moments and beating Temple in overtime.
The Black Knights finished No. 1 in the country in rushing (362.3 yards per game) and led the nation with a 55.2 third-down conversion percentage. The Black Knights' ball security was off the charts: Army lost just four fumbles on 775 carries. The defense was stingy inside its 20-yard line, ranking third in red-zone defense, highlighted by 10 stops.
Army outscored opponents, 169-94, in the second half this season.
Army went 8-5 with a Heart of Dallas Bowl win in 2016, and made strides this season. What's next for Monken and the Black Knights?
"To continue to try and get better," Monken said. "I'd stand to just have a good offseason right now and try to get ready for next year. The challenge becomes doing it again. It's tough to do it. It's tough to do it again."
One major offseason question is whether record-setting quarterback Ahmad Bradshaw has played his final game for the Black Knights.
Bradshaw, who set an academy mark with 1,746 rushing yards, isn't on track to graduate with his class in May. He's played three seasons after sitting out his freshman year while the Academy and U.S. Army investigated and cleared Bradshaw of sexual misconduct. A decision to permit Bradshaw to play one more season would be in the hands of the Academy and the NCAA eligibility committee.
Bradshaw announced in the postgame press conference at the Armed Forces Bowl that he had taken his final snap for Army. However, Monken said Bradshaw's status has not been determined.
"Time will tell there," Monken said.
For the time being, juniors Chris Carter and Luke Langdon, sophomore Kelvin Hopkins and freshmen Christian Anderson and Cam Thomas are expected to compete for the quarterback job during spring practice.
Army's top-ranked rushing offense will return fullbacks Darnell Woolfolk, Andy Davidson, Connor Slomka and Calen Holt (who combined for 1,869 yards and 24 touchdowns) and sophomore slot back Kell Walker (629 yards, six touchdowns).
The Black Knights' defense has linebackers Kenneth Brinson, Cole Christiansen and James Nachtigal returning, along with defensive backs James Gibson, Jaylon McClinton and Elijah Riley.
"I think this becomes a program now that we can strive for even more," Monken said. "I think there's a lot of things still out there for us to accomplish."
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