When the Army and Navy meet in the annual climax of the autumn football spectacle in Philadelphia November 29, the game will, for the first time in a decade, match teams that are not only similar in abilities but in philosophy. The similarity has come about because of a sweeping revision in Army tactics: Colonel Earl Blaik, long an exponent of impact football, has changed to hit-and-run tactics. Navy, under Eddie Erdelatz, has, as usual, brought a pro-type offense to this game.
"Manpower has always been a problem for us," Blaik said the other day. "I still think that impact football is the soundest. But, in past years, we found that our team began to go downhill after the middle of the season, due to the attrition of injuries and to plain exhaustion. Too, we were playing against what amounted to 11-man fronts and we simply don't have the personnel to do that."
Blaik's manpower problem came about because of an inherent difference in Army and Navy recruiting problems. The Army athletic department has only 25 to 30 appointments a year available for football players while Navy has nearly 100. This is all pretty complicated but it has something to do with the fact that the corps strength at West Point is 2,500, at Annapolis 3,600. At any rate, Navy had 73 football appointees this year, Army 27.
Blaik's change in attack strategy has been a wholehearted one. The Army offense, which once used the pass very sparingly as a device to keep the defense reasonably honest, now splits fairly evenly between pass and run. The device which has attracted most widespread attention, of course, is Lonesome George, the end who visits the huddle only rarely to renew friendships.
"The lonesome end serves two purposes for us," Blaik explains. "First, he is spread much wider than a normal-spread end. That means that the defense must commit itself on its coverage in the secondary immediately. This simplifies our quarterback's job, since he can tell at a glance how the secondary defense is set up. Second, the lonesome end is in position on the line when the team comes out and we can call quick plays without waiting for him to trot out to position. And he saves some energy, too.'
Army now runs from a spread on every play, with the lonesome end always on the strong side of an unbalanced line. Blaik has used a man in motion often, too, to spread the defense even more. Equipped with probably the two best halfbacks in the country in Bob Anderson and Pete Dawkins, plus an exceptionally good passer in Joe Caldwell and great receivers in Bill Carpenter, the lonesome end, Don Usry, the short-side end, and Anderson and Dawkins, Blaik has tailored an offense to suit his talent. He has done it well enough to rank second in the nation in offense.
The Army defense is a new one, too. Last year, with two big tackles, Blaik's line did very little stunting. This year the line is relatively small but exceptionally mobile. Blaik has sold this defense on stunting and avoiding blocks, rather than on power. The line slants and loops and the philosophy now is to ignore the occasional 20-yard gain by an opponent who catches the line slanting or looping in the wrong direction on the theory that in the next series of plays the same tactics may result in throwing opposing ball carriers for a five-yard loss and taking possession. Some Army defenses are planned to take advantage of the considerable talents of Bob Novogratz, a 6-foot-2, 210-pound linebacker. Novogratz has tremendous speed, a wide range to either side and an instinctive ability to diagnose a play. He has averaged around 20 tackles per game for Army and twice has won the Chuckles Axemurder Award for defensive excellence. This award is a Willard Mullin cartoon of a fictitious character named Chuckles Axemurder, chosen on the All-Time All-America sportswriters pick as a gag at Army training camp each year. The award is made each week to the player who has contributed most to the Army defense.
The Army first unit then is a completely equipped team on both offense and defense. Blaik's problem is that he has no entire second unit and must substitute piecemeal.
Eddie Erdelatz, who served as line coach for the San Francisco 49ers before coming to the Naval Academy in 1950, has always used the spread offenses of the pros. The Navy has an edge in air attack, based on the throwing of one of the East's best marksmen, Quarterback Joe Tranchini. Tranchini, of necessity, has thrown mostly to his halfbacks this season; Navy has had a run of injury at end which is pointed up by the fact that the starting left end for Navy in this game will be a midshipman named Tom Albershart, who began the season as a fourth-string fullback. Erdelatz has been hampered by injuries all year; if Navy were not so much deeper in personnel than Army, the team would have been completely wrecked instead of having a 6-2 record. Erdelatz faced a major rebuilding program when the season began, and this difficulty was compounded by the loss of no less than nine members of his first three units by injury, including Bob Reifsnyder, a 232-pound senior tackle Erdelatz calls the best in the country.
A firm believer in platooning his men, Erdelatz stuck with a young, ambitious but erratic second unit throughout the season, putting them into games regularly despite their mistakes. "They don't learn to play without playing," he says. "This unit finally came of age in the Maryland game."
Navy has one of the nation's best passing attacks, and although the Navy running attack can't match Army's the running is adequate. In physical size, the teams are evenly matched. The Army first unit is probably superior to Navy's, but Army has no depth to match Navy's second unit. Both teams use imaginative offenses designed to go all the way from anywhere on the field; both defenses stunt and avoid blocks rather than holding the line by pure strength.
The winner? If the two teams could only use one unit apiece, it would be Army. Under the present circumstances, the Army chance depends on how long its first unit can go at top speed against two rather evenly matched Navy units. But no matter which team wins, this game will be the last to decide a service championship. Not that this series will end; far from it. But, in the years to come, a young, immensely vital new school moves into the picture, making the service championship a triangular affair. The United States Air Force Academy, which has come out of the fledgling stage into maturity this season, will have a say in service titles in years to come.