Army Football: Can Black Knights Maintain Momentum Against Rutgers?
Army (2-7) goes into Rutgers (7-1) today coming off the euphoria of a 41-21 win over Air Force last week at Michie Stadium.
The victory was the Black Knights' first win over a service academy rival since 2005. In many ways, this validates the improvements this program has made in the Rich Ellerson coaching era.
Army head coach Rich Ellerson will never address questions about the Air Force and Navy games until game week. He tries to keep his players focused on the upcoming opponent often making comments such as, "There is only one team we can beat this week and that is..."
Coach Ellerson constantly tries to keep his players focused on the mechanics of their individual roles playing football and tells them not to worry about making mistakes, A favorite expression of his is, "Turn the scoreboard off and do the things associated with winning football."
Now Army has a big win to try and build off of as they play two games against Big East rivals in Rutgers this week and Temple next week at Michie Stadium.
The game against Temple will be remembered as Trent Steelman's last home game as the Army quarterback. He has had an impressive collegiate career, rewriting the West Point record book over the past four years.
Army has played Rutgers close the past few years, losing in overtime 23-20 at the new Met Life Stadium in 2010.
Last year in a game played at Yankee Stadium, Army was down 13-12 in the fourth quarter and appeared to take the lead, but a 52 yard touchdown run by Stephan Frazier was called back by a penalty. A subsequent Army punt was blocked and run back for a touchdown blowing open the game for Rutgers.
In the 2010 game at Met Life Stadium, Rutgers player Eric LeGrand was injured after running into Army's Malcolm Brown on a kick-off play.
I asked Rutgers head coach, Kyle Flood, how Eric is doing and Coach Flood mentioned Eric's weekly work with the Rutgers radio broadcast team.
Eric LeGrand is very lively on Twitter, often sending out inspirational mentions.
I have met Eric twice in the past year. Although his movement appears limited, his conversation is upbeat and engaging.
Rutgers is the only nationally rated team that Army will play this year. After Week 9, the Scarlet Knights reached number 15 in the Harris, Coaches and BCS Polls and number 18 in the Associated Press. Their loss to Kent State two weeks ago dropped them back to 23rd in the BCS poll and 24th in the AP.
Despite the Kent State loss, Rutgers is a powerful team. Especially on defense.
Rutgers is running for 132 yards per game, led by Jawan Jamison who averages 108 yards per game.
Quarterback Gary Nova and the Scarlet Knights like to throw the ball. Nova has completed nearly 60 percent of his throws for an average of 227 yards per game.
The defense is ranked sixth in the country, giving up just 14 points per game and is fourth in rush prevention, giving up just 88.5 yards per game.
Army continues to lead the country in rushing, averaging 375 yards per game, so this should be a great match up. The best rushing team in the country will be challenging one of the top five defenses against the run.
In Ellerson's weekly press conference, he talked about how good a team Rutgers is and how motivated they will be after a bye week and a loss to Kent State. Ellerson described the challenge in facing a team as physical as Rutgers.
"I think everybody knows how accomplished Rutgers is. That slight advantage that we have some weeks because of what we do is mitigated by the fact that they had two weeks to prepare for us. Frankly, we don't match-up especially well with them. I'm thinking about our guys on the defensive side of the ball. The last couple of times we've played Rutgers, we haven't been on the right side of the scoreboard at the end, but we've battled them and competed well with these guys."
Coach Ellerson addressed my question about the changes in the Rutgers team this season and overall positive play of the team under new head coach, Kyle Flood. Flood is a long time Scarlet Knight assistant coach who played his college football at Iona College in New Rochelle, NY.,
"I think the smart thing they've done has to do with continuity. The fact that he was able to step off where Greg (Schiano) left, the thing that you really appreciate about them is they have a relatively veteran football team that was able to leverage that experience and take it a step further. He embraced what was in place and added his own personality and direction to it."
One of the new standouts for the young Army defense this season has been freshman, Alex Meier. The 6'2", 200 pound player is third on the team in tackles, with 32 solos and 15 assists in 47 plays through nine games. More and more, number 23 is in the middle of making plays for the Black Knights.
I asked Coach Ellerson about the play of his emerging defensive star:
"Alex (Meier) was a very accomplished player at the prep school last year. Not only is he playing a lot of football for a young guy at this level, being a young guy at West Point is a little more daunting than most other place in the world. He also falls into a position that has a lot of the adjustment responsibilities that are associated with our defense. To his credit, he is hyper-competitive and does not like being wrong. What I'm seeing from him is a remarkable resilience. He's a long way from the finished product, but he's growing every week."
If Army can play its strong ball control game on offense and complete drives nearly every time they have the ball, they have a chance against Rutgers.
This is the best rushing defense they have played all year and Rutgers is fired up after having two weeks to think about their first loss of the season.
The young Army defense will need to step up and make plays.
But those who really had it tough this week are those devastated by the storm, so everything is relative.
This should be a good game that will provide a moment of entertainment for some of those in the area recovering from the storm and for those working non-stop on storm relief.
Ken Kraetzer covers Army football for WVOX Radio in New Rochelle, NY and Sons of the American Legion Radio. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand.
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