PISCATAWAY, N.J. (AP) — If this had been an ordinary week, No. 23 Rutgers would simply be looking to bounce back from its first loss of the season.
But this hasn’t been an ordinary week — or two — in New Jersey. And so while the Scarlet Knights (7-1) certainly want to get on the field and win again, no question, they also want to provide a little distraction from Superstorm Sandy for their state.
They’ll get a chance to do both against Army (2-7) at High Point Solutions Stadium Saturday.
“A lot of things have happened that we’re not used to, that we’re not accustomed to hearing about,” Rutgers linebacker Khaseem Greene said. “They say adversity builds character in you as a person.”
A 35-23 loss to Kent State two weeks ago preceded the superstorm by two days, and then this week, as Rutgers prepared for the Black Knights, a Nor’easter dumped more than a foot of snow in the region.
“I know some of the guys have some more serious stuff going on at home,” Scarlet Knights defensive tackle Scott Vallone said. “But getting into the groove of the week and getting into the routine of a game week will allow us to get focused.”
This will be the sixth straight season that Rutgers and Army have met in non-conference play, and the Scarlet Knights will look for their ninth straight win against the Black Knights, who are coming off an impressive win over Air Force.
The key to the game will be Army’s triple option offense. The Black Knights lead the nation in rushing (375.4 yards) and they will be facing a defense that is ranked No. 4 nation against the run, giving up 88.5 yards and only four touchdowns rushing this season.
“I think everybody knows how accomplished Rutgers is,” Army coach Rich Ellerson said. “They’re having a great season. That slight advantage that we have because of what we do is mitigated by the fact that they had two weeks to prepare for us.”
Army quarterback Trent Steelman and running back Raymond Maples are the biggest threats. Steelman has rushed for more than 100 yards the past two games, and he is 89 yards shy of posting the 16th 1,000-yard season in school history.
Maples is 93 yards shy of becoming only the third Army player to have rushed for at least 1,000 yards in two or more seasons.
“It’s a different scheme of defense that we have to play when we see an option attack,” Rutgers coach Kyle Flood said. “But we’ve been playing this defense against this offense for a number of years now. I know the players who have done it before, they really take pride in their ability to change gears for a week and get this game plan mastered as best we can.”
While the return of senior linebacker Nate Combs helped the Black Knights against Air Force, Rutgers has more skill overall. Running back Jawan Jamison is averaging 107.8 yards, 21st best in the nation, and sophomore receiver Brandon Coleman has a career average of almost 21 yards per catch. What’s more, eight of his 12 touchdown catches have covered 30 yards or more.
The big question mark this week is how Scarlet Knights sophomore quarterback Gary Nova responds after throwing six interceptions in the loss to Kent State.
“Frankly, we don’t match up especially well with them,” Ellerson said. “I’m thinking about our guys on the defensive side of the ball. Rutgers has a nightmare of a running back who has made some really good defenses look bad. They also have some guys at receiver who are hard to cover and are hard to tackle if they catch it.”
The key will be for the Black Knights to force turnovers.
“We know what they do,” Nova said. “We know they’re going to come out here and fight. And we just have to be prepared and come out and execute a lot better than I did (vs. Kent State).”
Army has lost 11 straight games away from West Point, and 14 straight vs. Big East competition. It hasn’t upset a ranked team since knocking off Air Force in 1972. However, last week’s win over the Falcons will certainly help the spirits.
“There’s no doubt that everybody is a little bit lighter in their step,” he said. “Throughout the season, I’m really proud of the way our guys have come to work refocused.”
Rutgers is looking for its sixth eight-win season in seven years. But more importantly, there is a three-way race raging on top of the Big East with Cincinnati and Louisville.
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