A Big Ten team comes to West Point for the first time since 1988 as the 2-0 Northwestern Wildcats will take on an Army team looking for its first win in a 3:30 PM start at Michie Stadium.
The Black Knights showed major improvement in last week's 23-20 loss at home to San Diego State, gaining 403 yards on the ground. They rank second in the NCAA in rushing with an average of 353 yards gained over the opening two weeks.
The surprise in this is that the yardage has been gained by a committee of backs led by No. 8 QB Trent Steelman and slot-back No. 23 Malcolm Brown. Steelman carried 21 times versus the Aztecs and gained 157 yards, the most rushing yards by an Army QB since Myreon Williams in 1991. The thousand-yard gainer from last year, fullback junior No. 7 Jared Hassin, has been limited to 75 yards gained on 20 carries as defenses have been keying on him.
Malcolm Brown has had success in getting outside, often taking pitch-outs from Steelman. The junior from Bay Shore, NY ran for 77 yards against SDSU on 10 carries, including a 31-yard gain. He is averaging 84.5 yards per game.
Importantly, he keeps the defense from keying on the middle of the line, which is opening runs for Steelman. Brown's threat to the outside should also help open up space for Hassin, who so far has been mostly tied up by the first two opponents.
On defense, the Black Knights have been built around two senior linebackers, both captains of the team: No. 9 Steve Erzinger and No. 42 Andrew Rodriguez.
Erzinger had a huge opening night against Northern Illinois, being credited with 21 tackles. Rodriguez, back on the field after a back injury kept him out all of 2010, has five tackles so far and Army's only fumble recovery.
Two emerging players on the defense are freshman No. 30 Hayden Pierce from Yorba Linda, California, who has 11 tackles at free safety, and strong safety No. 11 Thomas Holloway from Birmingham, Alabama, who has nine tackles so far.
Northwestern is the third 2010 bowl team Army is facing to start the 2011 season. So far this year, the Wildcats have won at Boston College and last week defeated Eastern Illinois 42-21 at home.
Their head coach, Pat Fitzgerald, is in his 6th season in Evanston, and has a 36-29 record. Northwestern received votes in both the Associated Press and USA Today top 25 polls—more than Penn State, BYU, and Georgia in both listings.
The national discussion involving the Wildcats has been the great play of starting quarterback Kain Colter, who has been substituting for the injured preseason Heisman Trophy candidate Dan Persa.
Last week, Colter ran for 109 yards, and like Steelman, scored three touchdowns. The Northwestern offense is averaging 430 yards per game and 33 points per game—quite a challenge for the young Army defense.
Head coach of the Black Knights, Rich Ellerson, complimented this week's opponent at his Tuesday press conference: "Another week, another tremendous challenge. Northwestern is a Big Ten football team; probably one of the better teams in the Big Ten this year. They're a very veteran football team."
Ellerson and his staff are preparing for both possible Wildcats quarterbacks and understand Persa might play.
"We expect we'll see [Dan] Persa, their award-winning quarterback, who brought such tremendous expectations into this year. Having said that, [Kain] Colter has stepped in the first two games and played extraordinarily well. We'll prepare for both, of course."
On the strong improvement on both sides of the ball demonstrated last week by his young Army team, the coach said, "We, on the other hand, this past week, got onto a stage with a quality opponent and we figured out how to play.
How much emotion you have to bring to the game, how much resilience you have to bring to the game, what it's like to turn the scoreboard off and play the game you love to play."
In order to be competitive with a Big Ten team like Northwestern, Ellerson said: "Now, we have to be better at what we do. We have to be more precise at what we do. If we can do that, if we can bring that same passion, aggressiveness and resilience to the contest with better execution, with more guys with their eyes and feet right, we can compete on this stage.
But that's going to take all of that to have a chance. In the absence of both of those things, we have no chance. Given both those things, we belong in this venue and we can compete in it."
One of the impressive performances from the Black Knight's 23-20 loss last week at home to San Diego State was the play of the 285-pound junior center Will Wilson. No coincidence that Trent Steelman had his best collegiate day running the ball with 157 yards rushing and three touchdowns.
I asked Coach Ellerson about the play of his big center: "What he brought to the game that really helped us and helped him be reasonably successful in that contest was his poise. San Diego State was getting in and out of a lot of different looks, and he's right in the middle of some of those adjustments that have to take place. He was able to be right most of the day, and that gave the offense a chance to get started."
The depth chart for this week lists as starting wide receiver, in addition to No. 88 Jared McFarlin, another sophomore, 6'2" No. 2 Anthony Stephens from Greenville, South Carolina.
I asked Coach Ellerson about the addition of Stephens to the starting lineup: "Anthony [Stephens], Jared [McFarlin] and Davyd [Brooks] are all up there in the starting rotation. The two young guys, Jared and Anthony, are going to get better week after week after week.
They're still playing their first real meaningful reps, and every time they do that against a quality opponent they get a better of idea of what it takes to play the position."
Northwestern provides a big challenge to the West Point defense gaining maturity with each game, built on the stability of Erzinger and Rodriguez at the linebacker spots. I asked the coach about what it is going to take defensively on Saturday.
"Defensively, what we have to do is get everybody playing the same defense at the same time. When we do that, we can frustrate folks. They're another up-tempo outfit. They'll challenge you with the number of times they try to snap the ball, the amount of time they're going to spend at the line of scrimmage. We're going to get that young defense stressed again in that regard.
The being right, the being poised, that's where we'll see growth."
A near-sellout crowd is expected at Michie Stadium on Saturday, of close to 40,000. It is a late start at 3:30 PM, so the Black Knights will have a chance to tailgate and to see the Parade of Cadets on "The Plain" starting at 12 Noon.
It would a memorable victory if West Point could pull an upset here. They almost did it last week against San Diego State, moving down the field down by only three in the closing minutes. As Coach Ellerson always talks about, if they can win the turnover battle they have a shot, and not get down too many points early.
West Point is playing very well on special teams this year and both teams run the ball well. The difference will be the Northwestern offense against the young Army defense.
Should be a good one.
Ken Kraetzer covers West point football for WVOX radio in New Rochelle, NY. Listen to the West point Football Report every Tuesday night at 5:30 PM during the season on WVOX.com. Reach him on firstname.lastname@example.org.