Army coach Jeff Monken has accomplished the unimaginable at West Point — two straight seasons with 10 wins.
Call it the fullback phenomenon.
Houston (8-4) will face the ground game led by senior captain Darnell Woolfolk up close and personal on Saturday in the Armed Forces Bowl in Fort Worth, Texas. In an era where aerial assaults are the norm, Monken maintains a simple formula for success — keep the ball — and nobody does that better than the No. 22 Black Knights (10-2) with their potent triple option and stable of bruising runners.
Woolfolk (5-foot-9, 235 pounds), Andy Davidson (6-2, 235), Connor Slomka (6 foot, 240), and Calen Holt (6 foot, 230) have combined for 1,642 yards rushing and 23 touchdowns. They are the major key to a ball-control offense that moves the chains with methodical monotony and leads the nation in time of possession at just under 39 minutes.
Their prowess was on full display in an overtime loss on the road against then-No. 5 Oklahoma in September. The Black Knights had three scoring drives of 16 plays or more, ran a season-high 87 plays, and held the ball for nearly 45 minutes as the fullback foursome combined for 114 yards rushing and two touchdowns against a foe that qualified for the College Football Playoff.
Woolfolk is the workhorse of the group. He has 885 yards on 210 carries and 14 touchdowns rushing, tops on the team in all three categories and just ahead of junior quarterback Kelvin Hopkins Jr. (847, 197, 12).
When the ball is snapped, the fullback gets hit no matter what in the Army offense, and Woolfolk, with his bulging thighs, is usually the one to deliver the first salvo.
"The fullback is our bread and butter," Hopkins said. "We can't do anything on offense without getting that fullback established."
That Woolfolk is even on the Army roster was a stroke of good fortune. A two-way star at fullback and linebacker for powerhouse Maine-Endwell High School on New York state's Southern Tier, he was headed to play Division III ball after Lafayette defensive coordinator John Loose delivered a familiar message — too slow to be a running back, too short to play defense, even in Division I's second tier.
When Monken was hired five years ago, he added Loose to his new staff and the proverbial light bulb quickly went off.
"I knew he would be absolutely perfect in our offense," said Loose, in his second stint as an assistant at West Point. "He runs so hard. He's very, very hard to tackle. He's a tough competitor. He has everything you want in a fullback in our offense."
All it took to seal the deal was a little bit of research and a family visit for lunch at West Point. The chance to play at college football's top level and on national television at Michie Stadium was a bonus hard to ignore.
"It happened to work out well," said Woolfolk, who knew nothing about the military when Army came calling and will graduate as a field artillery officer. "I just think it comes down to the offense we're playing. It fits me well. It fits my running style, my mentality. If things were different, I don't know how happy I would be."
Woolfolk's freshman year was spent mostly on special teams. He emerged as a sophomore, registering 600 yards on 109 carries and scoring nine TDs and last season had 812 yards rushing on 157 carries and scored 14 times.
His importance both on and off the field cannot be underestimated. He's an integral cog in a class that has helped Monken transform the Black Knights into a winner after being a perennial loser over two decades.
"Our guys see him as being such a reliable guy, a guy they can lean on, count on, not just as a player but as a leader," Monken said. "He does a great job with our young guys and he's had an unbelievable career.
"We recruit a lot of guys here that don't have any offers," Monken added. "A guy can become a really good football player. He doesn't have to be the most talented player to be the best player. There's guys that may be even more talented on our football team than Darnell Woolfolk, but they're just not better football players. He's such a tough player, such a tough runner. When that guy's got the ball and he's determined to make a yard, he's going to make a yard."
Small wonder that Army leads the nation in converting on both third down (105 of 189) and fourth (31 of 36). Woolfolk is currently tied with Mike Mayweather for third all-time at West Point in career rushing touchdowns with 37, the most for a fullback in academy history.
"He's unbelievable. I can't say enough about him," said junior linebacker Cole Christiansen, also a captain. "We're so blessed to have a stable of thoroughbreds running fullback."
With one game left in his college career, Woolfolk has 2,297 yards rushing, 11th all-time at West Point. And to think he didn't even net one yard as a freshman.
"It always feels good when your hard work is paying off and people actually recognize that," said Woolfolk, who has been invited to the East-West Shrine Game. "You're not just any old team, you're competitive. It's a great feeling."