In eight seasons as a head coach, Jeff Monken has lived through two losing campaigns — his first two years at Army. Upon taking over a program that had one winning season between 1997 and his 2014 arrival, Monken went 4-8 in ’14 and 2-10 in ’15. Two years later, the Black Knights went 10-3, won the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy for the first time since 1996 and beat a 10-win team in San Diego State in the Armed Forces Bowl. Of Army’s three losses, one came to Ohio State and the other two came by a combined seven points.
What changed? Well, nothing changed. That’s the entire point of the triple option attack. Everyone knows what’s coming, but the opponent is so disciplined, so sound and good at what it does you still can’t stop it.
To go from 2-10 to 10-3 in a 24-month span, Army didn’t change what it does, it just got better at doing it.
But how did they do that? How does Monken build his team? He explained how at the AFCA Convention last week in Charlotte.
Every Monken-led team starts with six key values:
1. Be the tougher team. “Being mentally tough means you handle success and you handle adversity,” he said. “If you’re mentally tough, you’re physically tough.”
2. Be the most fundamentally sound team. “We spend an enormous amount of time on blocking, tackling and taking care of the football,” he said.
3. Follow the seven commandments. Those seven commandments break down as follows:
A) Win the turnover margin. “Of the top 50 teams this year in FBS football in turnover margin, 44 of those were bowl-eligible teams,” Monken said. Monken said Army was No. 3 nationally in giveaways this season (they actually tied for second, with 10). Two years ago? Army gave the ball away 22 times, good for 80th nationally. Monken pointed out Army tossed six interceptions this season in 65 total pass attempts.
B) Run the ball and stop the run. Monken said that teams that run the ball for more yards than their opponent win 54.5 percent of the time, while teams that throw for more yards are only marginally better than a coin flip — 50.1 percent.
In 2015, Army’s rushing differential was plus-79.08 yards per game. For a team that throws the ball as little as possible, that number isn’t good enough to win. Two years later, that differential grew to plus-189.39. That’ll do.
Army head coach: "People ask if we're going to throw the ball more. We're trying to throw it less."
— Zach Barnett (@zach_barnett) January 9, 2018
C) Win the kicking game. “Your winning percentage goes up when your field position after kickoffs is better than your opponent’s,” Monken said. The punt, he said, is the only play in which 40 yards of field position consistently change hands.
D) Win on third down. “For the top 50 third down conversion percentage defensive teams this year, 44 were bowl eligible,” Monken said. “On offense, 38 of those were bowl eligible.” In 2015, Army won 165 of a total of 321 third downs, good for 51.4 percent. Two years later, that percentage jumped to 57.3 (173-of-302).
E) Create big plays and limit negative yardage plays. Monken said 41 of the top 50 teams at tackling their opponents behind the line of scrimmage made bowl games, while 35 of the top 50 at limiting TFLs reached the postseason. Army cut its TFLs allowed in half from 2015 to ’17.
F) Win on the goal line. Army’s red zone touchdown percentage leaped from 64.5 percent in 2015 to a national-best 82.4 percent this fall. Defensively, Army cut that same number down from 62.8 percent to 55.9 percent, a difference of 40 spots nationally.
G) Eliminate foolish penalties and missed assignments. “We can control not lining up offsides, jumping in the neutral zone, having a false start, having 12 guys in the huddle or taking a delay of game. We control knowing our plays, knowing the calls, seeing the signals, we control all of that,” Monken said. “At West Point, those are things we’ve still got to coach.”
4. Play together. In the Army, this goes without saying.
5. Play with superior effort. You might think Monken takes it easier on his players, considering all they endure outside of football. (Part of every cadet’s summer regiment is sleeping in a sleeping back for two straight weeks, subsisting only on MREs.) You would be wrong. Incredibly wrong. “I try to make football practice the toughest part of their day,” Monken said.
6. Don’t flinch. In short, this means trusting in the team’s training and executing the plan.
“We find when we’ve fallen short it’s because we didn’t execute in one of these areas of the plan,” Monken said. “When we follow the plan, we win. It’s infallible.”