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Matchup to Watch: Josh Gattis will be tested by Army’s clock management skills

Examining Army’s near upset of Oklahoma last season indicates what can go wrong if the offense isn’t efficient.

Jim Harbaugh praised Josh Gattis’ inaugural performance as the offensive playcaller in the 40-21 victory for the Michigan Wolverines over the Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders on Saturday. Harbaugh called the new offensive coordinator’s performance “practically flawless” and “decisive”.

There will be no break for Gattis as he will now be tested by a program that had a top-10 defense in the country last season.

Now some people may say that the real thing to watch this week would be the Army Black Knight’s triple option against the Michigan defense and specifically the defensive ends and linebackers.

But, the fact of the matter is that Army will run the football down the throat of any team in the country. The triple-option is one of the most difficult offenses to stop if it is run correctly, and the Black Knights have been doing it for years. Based on their success over the last two seasons (10+ wins in ‘17 and ‘18), it’s safe to say they have perfected it.

Because of the efficiency of the Army offense in only running the football, they milk the clock on pretty much every single drive. Even a three-and-out (or four-and-out since they often go for it on fourth down) could take two minutes off the clock.

Army held the ball on offense for an astounding average of 38:50 last season, which led the nation. That helped their defense hold teams to under 300 yards of offense per game in 2018.

The Black Knights won their 2019 opener against Rice where they had two touchdown drives (one in each half) that were 16+ plays with each spanning over nine minutes of game time.

Rice (their opponent) had just nine possessions in the ballgame. To put things into perspective, Michigan had eight in just the first half on Saturday against MTSU.

On top of that, Army plays tough against really good teams, and even some of top teams in the nation. They nearly upset Oklahoma last season as they forced overtime before the Sooners pulled away.

Remember that Oklahoma team had a College Football Playoff berth at the ends of the season. The Sooners would have had no hope to be in that race had they fallen to Army early in 2018.

How did the Black Knights almost pull off the upset?

Army took advantage of each Oklahoma mistake with long drives. Kyler Murray threw an interception early in the second half. Army responded with a long drive and a touchdown. Oklahoma failed on a fourth-down conversion, and the ensuing Army drive was 17-plays and ended in an interception for Oklahoma. Had the Sooners not picked that off, they likely would have lost the game.

Those two drives from Army took 20 minutes of the second half off of the clock. That gave one of the best offenses in the country only one other opportunity to score in the second half, and time ran out on that drive forcing overtime.

What can the Wolverines learn from this near upset by Army last season?

Gattis and this new Michigan offense have to be ready to go and cannot have a sloppy start to the game like they did last week against MTSU. Fumbles and botched handoffs need to be nonexistent so the Wolverines waste no plays and no drives. Any mistake puts gives the ball right back to the super slug that is this Army offense.

They cannot get cute and run gimmick plays that fool no one (a la the two quarterback set fans saw last week). Every single play and drive is going to be the most important of the game because they are going to get so few opportunities to score offensively.

This puts the game into Gattis’ hands. He must be better than last week and he must make sure his players are prepared for the task at hand. There can be no more snafus and awkward plays like we saw last week. The team has to be clicking on all cylinders because Army will take advantage of every mistake by burning the clock, even if they don’t put the ball in the endzone.

It will certainly be a tough task for the second game of a brand new offensive scheme.