The game to be played at Qualcomm Stadium will be broadcast nationally by the NBC Sports Network with the kickoff scheduled for 4:38 PST / 7:38 EST.
Army is trying to win a game on the road for the first time since the 2010 season when it won the Armed Forces Bowl at SMU's home field in Dallas. To give his players the feel of playing a road game, Coach Ellerson had the team fly to Fort Benning in Georgia to play their spring game in front of over 5,000 soldiers and Army family members.
Last year San Diego State narrowly defeated Army 23-20 in an exciting game at Michie Stadium on a 42 yard field goal with 9:29 left in the fourth quarter. Army fumbled eight times in that game and lost three.
This year head coach Rocky Long’s Aztecs will be seeking to replace two top players from a year ago off to the NFL quarterback Ryan Lindley and 3,000 yard career runner Ronnie Hillman.
The quarterback is scheduled to be Ryan Katz who is a transfer from Oregon where he threw for 2.401 and 18 touchdowns in 2010.
This past week, San Diego State lost their opener to Washington 21-12 with Katz throwing for 128 yards, a touchdown with one interception. Nat Berhe led the Aztec defense with eight tackles and a fumble recovery.
Their defense appeared aggressive giving up just 3.4 yards per rushing attempt and making ten tackles for losses.
Coach Ellerson discussed what he saw watching the tape of the San Diego State’s opening game:
"They had some bad things happen to them early, got into a hole but battled back. I'm sure they've devoted time to preparing for the option this preseason, knowing they are playing us and having Air Force in their conference, but you can't not be focused on that Washington game.“
This year Army is showing on its two deep depth chart nine seniors, six juniors, and seven sophomores among the starters, this is quite a change from 2011 when the lineup included numerous freshman and other inexperienced players.
Coach Ellerson addressed my question on the experience his team has this year,
"We're a more mature football team than we were a year ago. Mature beyond our years, if you will. Last year we were starting more freshmen than seniors. This year we're starting about the same number of sophomores as we are seniors. Those 'young sophomores' are older than their age because of the circumstances of a year ago when they were between the white lines with the game on the line."
If last year’s 3-9 season and close loss to Navy while playing many underclassman was considered a rebuilding year, 2012 is different.
This season Army has a senior quarterback named Trent Steelman, two runners who have gained over one thousand yards in a season named Ray Maples and Jared Hassin and a defense without a freshman in the starting lineup. The expectations are for success and to be a factor in the Commander-In-Chief competition against Air Force and Navy.
Coach Ellerson commented:
"We're a more mature football team, and we expect to win. We expect to be in some tough situations and we expect to handle those situations. We've been at this long enough, in the saddle for three years. We have enough guys who were recruited and developed for this style of offense and defense. We have an internal schedule which cracks the code in terms of how to manage the West Point journey in such a way to keep ourselves healthy and fresh on Saturdays."
In past years Coach Ellerson told the players when things were going bad to “Turn off the scoreboard, play the next snap”. This year he expects the Black Knights to be much more competitive.
"You're not going to have to read between the lines to know that things are working. You'll be able to see it on the scoreboard more often than not."
The service academies generally do not have the huge lineman common place at civilian college teams, Army is training its future officers to lead platoons through harsh jungle and desert conditions.
The Black Knights have to work to keep weight on players who are required to complete extensive summer military training. A San Diego based reporter asked the coach about Army’s "Double-Eagle Flex" defense which emphasizes speed over size,
"It is a little bit unique, it's multiple and it allows you to play with guys who look good in a cadet uniform. We don't value 300-pound linemen; we value strength, explosiveness and range of play."
The Black Knights have depth in the offensive backfield this year with their top seven runners back from a team which led the NCAA in rushing last year with 346.5 yards a game.
At the top of the list is senior quarterback Trent Steelman who ran for 645 yard last year and scored 12 touchdowns. Then there is Raymond Maples who ran for 1,000 yards in 2011 and Jared Hassin who ran for over 1,000 yards in the bowl wining season of 2010. Don’t forget Malcolm Brown who ran for 572 yards last year and is designated as a starting wide receiver for Saturday’s game. Then there are the talented starting running backs both sophomores Larry Dixon, Terry Baggett, and Trenton Turrentine.
The coach had a few words to say about the young players,
"I'm impressed with Terry Baggett, He is one of those good news stories; a guy who had a few flashes of brilliance, but was banged up a lot of last year. Raymond (Maples) and Larry (Dixon) have never been better."
Army’s option offense allows the quarterback the chance to read the defense before choosing to pitch-out or keep the ball himself. I asked the coach if the depth in the backfield allows Trent Steelman the opportunity to spread the ball around hopefully keeping him healthy throughout the year,
"Our opponent will determine who is going to touch the ball. Obviously, not everything we do is triple-option. We have some designed hand-offs, but we also have some designed keeps. Our quarterback's ability to distribute should be an asset. We have a four-year starter Trent Steelman at an academy running the option. That gives us a great chance to be right in terms of who has the ball in their hands on any given play."
The Black Knights struggled last year up front mounting a pass rush and stopping the run against teams like Temple who had huge offensive lines.
This year the defensive line is rebuilt around starters Robert Kough and Mike Ugenyi both sophomores.
Army Football Sports Information Director Brian Gunning reports that senior defensive lineman, Jarrett Mackey the “Legacy” captain of the team is not yet cleared to play from the injury and recuperation that ended his 2011 season in the opening game.
Coach Ellerson answered my question about the defensive line.
"Some of the guys who are playing defensive end this year were playing defensive tackle last year. Having Mike and Bobby in there is part of why are optimistic. Obviously, they'll be playing their first significant number of repetitions this week. They've prepared really well and are both physically mature, gifted guys that are going to improve as the season rolls along. We're going to give them a reasonable job description. I felt like there were times last year when we were asking guys to do something that, frankly, wasn't in the cards physically."
At the end of the day for Army, the Black Knights will look to Trent Steelman to make the tough third and fourth down plays that will make the difference on the year. As in the past three years, Army will give Steelman to carry the ball into the end zone himself.
Coach Ellerson addressed a question about his senior quarterback,
"We have a four-year starter at quarterback. That is good anywhere, but it's especially good at a service academy which runs the triple option. A guy who has been in as many hard-fought situations as he's been and a guy who has been in the program with the same coaches for four years should be a tremendous advantage for us."
About the leadership Steelman brings to the Black Knights, he said
"He's beyond being an experienced, good player; he's a great young leader. He's handled some incredibly difficult moments. This football team's had some great days and some tough days. He takes it all on his own shoulders and has learned how to manage himself to be an asset to his teammates."
Ken Kraetzer covers Army football for WVOX 1460 AM in New Rochelle, NY and Sons of the American Legion Radio. His Twitter address is @SAL50NYRadio