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Back to the Future: The 1945 Army Cadets

The world went to war, and Army won titles

NCAA Football: Army at Navy Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

About two years ago on YouTube, I stumbled upon the 1950 Sugar Bowl between LSU and Oklahoma. While watching, I came across this play:

The quarterback gives to the fullback who then pitches it back to the quarterback. It’s like triple option except with only two guys. I filed that play away in my dark corners in mind and moved on until...

*spits out drink*

There it is again, 67 years later. As football nerds, we all probably went crazy when we saw that play. A cool wrinkle off the inside zone read that every team uses. If Lincoln Riley can resuscitate a play from the depths of some dusty film locker on the Oklahoma campus, then maybe there are more treasures hidden on grainy film footage around the country.

In his seminal work on estimating S&P numbers throughout history, Bill Connelly found 23 offenses ranked in the 100th percentile, calling them the “23 most perfect offenses in the history of college football.” You can read up on his methodology and see the full list of teams by clicking the link.

Using that list, I set out to look at some very old offenses to see what we could glean from them today.

1945 Army

The Army teams of the mid-1940s are a case study in how to create a dominant college football program in a blink of eye: take everyone else’s best players. Once the U.S. declared war in 1941 and entered World War II, Army could get their hands on the best players in the country through two methods.

  1. As college aged men were drafted into the war, many gridiron stars were selectively moved to West Point for school (*coughs loudly* and football).
  2. They could guarantee to high school recruits that wouldn’t have to go overseas throughout their entire schooling.

Path A netted Army future Heisman trophy winner, Mr. Inside, Doc Blanchard, while Path B gave them another Heisman Winner, Mr. Outisde, Glenn Davis.

Mr. Inside

Mr. Outside

Army would dominate from 1944-46, going a combined 27-0-1 and winning three national championships.

Unfortunately, YouTube doesn’t provide us with a ton of film on the 1945 team, which scored an average of 45.8 points per game. But we do have the game against the only team that could compete with them at that time: the United States Naval Academy.

On December 1, 1945, in Philadelphia, No. 1 Army beat No. 2 Navy, 32-13. It was by far the closest any team stayed with Army that year.

Let’s take a look at some of the interesting concepts that stuck out as we view the 1945 Army offense with our modern day lenses.

Army was based out of T-formation, a precursor to the wishbone. Three backs in the backfield, all in a line.

Army ran your basic gamut of run plays. They could give the ball to any of the backs, and the quarterback was also a runner. They also had a bevy of options when they wanted to throw the ball. Seven guys threw passes in 1945, including Glenn Davis, who threw 20.

When you set up in tight quarters like teams did back in those days — Army is basically in 32 personnel the whole game — space is not created by the formation as it is in the spread. It’s created via misdirection and via the running backs and the offensive line.

I was surprised to see Army run a lot of pre-snap motion. They split their backs out a lot. Here they are running a lead swing screen that closely resembles some concepts Alabama utilized against Clemson in the 2017 CFP semifinals.

Here’s a variation of a play-action pop pass. The outside backs split and the fullback comes up the middle for the fake before the tight end slips away for a pop pass. New Orleans’ Sean Payton has run a similar concept, where he has a split backfield and Drew Brees will pump to both running backs on swing passes before hitting the tight end over the middle on the same type of route.

Now they run the same split backfield action but it’s actually a sort of QB sneak. It’s tough to tell because of the quality of the film, but it may actually be QB trap which is really cool.

This one actually killed me, though. The three backs should just lead on a QB sweep rather the QB giving to the 3rd back and then trying to get out in front of him and blocking. FIRE THE OC!

A little bit from Navy as they run a play-action screen pass. Does anyone know when the first screen pass was?

More Navy as they run what looks like a “yankee” concept. Yankee is when you have one receiver run a post route and have another receiver from the opposite side running a crossing route underneath the post. I believe that’s what’s happening here.

Every NFL offenses have a variety of Yankee variations in their playbook, and Sean McVay killed teams with the concept this year.

Back to Army for this really cool design. They show their outside run before the QB pivots to feed the third back, who gets a nice trap block from the backside tackle.

Maybe the most important thing I saw on the film was this one. Is the QB looking to the sideline for a play? We’ll never really know because the clip cuts out for a few frames but I really want to believe that’s what it is.

The amount of concepts you could take from this one game alone is startling. The misdirection, the motion, even the vertical passing concepts have all stood the test of time.

Next Up: 1959 Syracuse