WEST POINT, N.Y. — Four years after he was hired at Army, coach Jeff Monken has succeeded where so many others had failed over a span of more than two decades, and the achievements are significant.
The Black Knights finished 2017 with a 10-3 record, a gutsy 42-35 win over San Diego State in the Armed Forces Bowl on Saturday the perfect cap to a memorable season.
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Army heads into the offseason with these accomplishments to build on: The Black Knights won the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy, emblematic of service academy supremacy, for the first time since 1996; matched the academy record for wins in a season; posted its second straight winning season, which hadn't been done in 27 years; won its second straight bowl game, which had only been done once before, in the mid-1980s; led the nation in rushing; defeated a Power Five foe (Duke) that also played in the postseason; and, most importantly, beat Navy for the second straight year.
Monken has changed the culture in his short tenure. Army now expects to win, and the academy is lobbying to be included in the AP Top 25 when the final poll is released in the new year.
"When you have a whole team of guys that have been with the coaching staff, it's really satisfying to see what they accomplished as a group," Monken said. "This means a lot to our team."
In this day of pass-happy offenses, Monken has accomplished the unthinkable with his option attack — his Black Knights have been winning regularly by pretty much sticking to the ground and not committing turnovers. Army had only five fumbles in more than 800 plays — 785 rushes, 20 receptions — in 2017, a remarkable statistic, while attempting just 65 passes.
Three of Army's victories were achieved without completing a pass, the most significant a 21-0 triumph on the road against service academy nemesis Air Force. Against archrival Navy, Army attempted to throw just once in a riveting 14-13 victory over the Midshipmen.
The Black Knights won eight of their final nine games, but there are big holes to fill on both sides of the ball.
Chief among them is the key to the offense — quarterback Ahmad Bradshaw. The Black Knights scored 42 touchdowns on 51 trips into the red zone, and Bradshaw was the catalyst, rushing for an academy single-season record 1,746 yards and scoring 14 TDs.
Army also loses Josh Boylan, Mike Houghton, Bryce Holland and Brent Toth, who started on the offensive line for 12 straight weeks and helped create the seams and holes for a team that averaged 362.3 yards per game and six yards per carry. But four fullbacks who combined for 1,871 yards rushing — Darnell Woolfolk, Andy Davidson, Connor Slomka and Calen Holt — return along with speedy running back Kell Walker.
Army goes for wins. pic.twitter.com/VqrpdOZNh6— ESPN (@espn) December 23, 2017
Defensively, hard-hitting safety Rhyan England, defensive end John Voit (39 straight starts) and linebacker Alex Aukerman (15.5 TFLs) depart. But James Nachtigal (103 tackles), Cole Christiansen (84 tackles) and Kenneth Brinson (38 tackles) will give the Black Knights veteran leadership at linebacker while safety James Gibson (45 tackles) and cornerback Elijah Riley will help anchor the secondary.
On special teams, Army loses placekicker Blake Wilson (3 of 8 on field goals) but punter Nick Schrage (42.9 yards/punt) returns for his final season.
When Monken arrived, Army had had only one winning season since 1996. That he was one of eight finalists for the Eddie Robinson Coach of the Year Award was no surprise to Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo.
"Since coach Monken got there, he's turned it around," Niumatalolo said. "You can just see the program elevating, and he's taking them to a new level."