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October 12, 2010Army-Rutgers will never be Army-Navy, but given time, this New York Metropolitan matchup could become a real rivalry.
As Army and Rutgers prepare for Saturday's football game at New Meadowlands Stadium (2:04 p.m. kickoff), the simple truth is that there really has never been one between these two.
Coach Rich Ellerson would like nothing more than to change that. "If we become competitive we can call it a rivalry. Certainly we've played them a significant number of times, but recently it's been very one-sided. We would love for it to become a rivalry because that would imply that we're starting to win,'' he said, "and that's hard to do because they've done a great job there.''
Rutgers is 3-2 after a comeback win against Connecticut last weekend. Army, 4-2, is coming off a 41-23 win at Tulane, a team Rutgers lost to 17-14 on Oct. 2.
Ellerson knows better than to make comparisons off such results. When it comes to Army-Rutgers, the results are, if nothing else, consistent.
Rutgers has won the last six in a row and 10 of the last 12. Although the all-time series is tied at 18 wins each, the Black Knights have not beaten the Scarlet Knights since 1996 - which happens to be the last time they played each other at the Meadowlands.
While Ellerson is quite aware of the series history, to him it is just that. History. "All that other stuff, including the Tulane game, all that is ancient history,'' he said. "Our whole football life revolves around what's coming Saturday.''
What's coming Saturday is a Big East Conference team that finally showed some offensive potential last week, and a defense that is, as Ellerson put it, "A nightmare. They are ranked nationally in everything. They're very physical, a veteran outfit, a very talented outfit, and they take pride (in) how they play on that side of the ball.''
Rutgers is ranked ninth nationally in scoring defense at 14.4 points per game, trailing the likes of Iowa, TCU, Missouri, Nebraska, Alabama, Ohio State and West Virginia. It is No. 10 in rush defense (90.2 yards allowed per game), and second in the country behind TCU in third down efficiency, limiting opponents to 15 conversions in 65 attempts (23 percent).
Rutgers is also 4th in the nation in fewest first downs allowed per game, averaging 12.4, ranked behind only TCU, Ohio State and West Virginia.
Its two losses have been by a combined seven points, losing to North Carolina by four points and Tulane by three. In the Tulane game Rutgers had a 95-yard kickoff return nullified by a yellow flag.
Penalties have been rather common for Rutgers this season. Last week they were flagged 11 times (14 if you count two holding calls and one pass interference that were declined by UConn), against Tulane they committed nine penalties, and against UNC it was 11.
In those three games 204 negative yards were marched off.
Last weekend that did not hurt them, as freshman quarterback Chas Dodd started his first game and threw for 365 yards and a couple of touchdowns.
Despite an offensive line that remains a work in progress, the Rutgers offense may be finally hitting stride. "Our sense is they're playing with a little bit of a chip on their shoulder,'' Ellerson offered. "They come at you in a lot of different ways, and they're not strangers with our offense, and Navy's, and they've had great success.''
Army has been having its own success this season, but as Ellerson pointed out, this is not just another game where their style on both sides of the ball will be somewhat of a mystery to the opponent. "Yes, we're a little bit different,'' he said about his schemes, including their relentless triple option. "But we have to make sure we're not fooling ourselves. We say the same thing every week, but this is not every week. Rutgers is well-schooled. They'll have a plan very well-thought out.
"We have to play our game. We feel our system matches up, but it doesn't mean a thing if our guys don't have their eyes and feet where they belong. If Rutgers watches our game tapes they don't have to look too deep in their playbook to find some good ideas.''
This game will be the Army ground assault vs. the Rutgers ground patrol. This will be Rutgers trying to air it out and Army trying to intercept flights on its radar.
This will also be about Josh McNary trying to get a piece of those 18 sacks RU's O-line has allowed. This will be about Army blitzing a little more than usual, in an attempt to rush the freshman and confuse Rutgers' linemen more than they too often seem to be.
This will also be a game in which both teams desperately need to win to keep realistic bowl aspirations alive.
In that regard, Army will again lean on what it believes is a constant advantage, one in which has this season resulted in three straight road victories.
"We talk about our callouses, about the West Point experience that creates a skill set that we can leverage on Saturday,'' Ellerson said. "(That is) the ability to focus on the task at hand and not carry a lot of baggage forward from what happened on the last play, the last series or the last game.
"Everybody wants that ability,'' he added. "We should be great at it because we do it all day long, all year long. Here at West Point we have an advantage where we're trying to deal with those issues.''
Saturday's issues are quite clear, and some day, Ellerson hopes, the issues will include the intangible motivations and emotions of a true rivalry game.
"Coach Schiano has done a wonderful job of building a program that's consistently good, and occasionally great - which is what I envision for Army football in the future.''
Until then it's just another tough game.