Games between Rutgers and UConn are usually close, and last Friday's contest proved to be no exception. The Huskies were road favorites, riding high after a quarterback change breathed new life into their offense. Rutgers had struggled all year to move the ball and score points, but the Scarlet Knights were able to get their own spark after true freshman passer Chas Dodd was pressed into the starting lineup in relief of Tom Savage. The final score was only 27-24, but Rutgers thoroughly dominated underlying game statistics like first downs, time of possession, and total yardage. Their offensive line is still in shambles, but for the first time all season there is actual, genuine hope of fielding a capable offense thanks to Dodd.
That change comes not a moment too soon. On tap this week is Army, in another matchup between the New York City metropolitan area's two bowl subdivision college football teams before Rutgers resumes conference play for the rest of the season. The two geographic neighbors are set to welcome the first ever FBS game into the New Meadowlands Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. (Navy and Notre Dame are on tap for next week.) This one officially counts as a home game for Rutgers, moving to the new stadium and sacrificing a bit of home field advantage for cool $1.2 million dollar profit over a normal home game. Army will return the favor next year for a rematch at Yankee Stadium in The Bronx.
After some lean years in recent decades, Army is resurgent, with second-year coach Rich Ellerson seemingly copying rival Navy's model of adopting the triple option offense to overcome the inherent logistical disadvantages of competing as a service academy. At 4-2, the Black Knights are off to their best start in years, with a winning season and a bowl game looming as a distinct possibility. The team ranks ninth in the country in rushing offense, and first overall in turnover margin. The most worrying statistic of all for Rutgers is 41-23, the score by which Army dispatched Tulane in New Orleans last week. That is the very same team that had jeopardized RU's season onto the brink of despair in a homecoming upset.
You could always count on the Black Knights giving 100% effort on every play, but even last season the talent disparity was immediately evident, especially on defense. This should be won or lost depending on whether the Rutgers offense is for real or not, but Army's gains on that side of the ball are the central reason why their program is on an upswing. Rutgers has a lot of speed on defense, and a fair amount of experience with defending the triple option from past games Army and Navy. It still is a very difficult offense to prepare for however, in part because of the scheme's limited use across college football. Opposing defenses have to throw out an entire year's worth of preparation, while staying cognizant of the Army line's frequent use of chop blocks.
It only takes one wrong guess, one mistaken over pursuit to lead to a big gain. The option is predicated on those mistakes piling up during game; wearing down opposing defenses with lengthy touchdown drives down the field. In order to beat the option, defenses need to maintain containment, and force stops for minimal yardage on first and second down. Then, even if a pitch works for a big gain on third down, the offense still will not have converted, and be forced to punt. If time is of the essence and option teams have to pass, that is even better, although defenses must always be on their guard for the occasional bomb. Rutgers used a special 4-2-5 base defense for last year's game to good effect, exchanging a linebacker for an extra safety help in countering Army's modified Flexbone attack.
By transitivity, Army should have the edge, but Rutgers is actually favored in this one by nearly a touchdown for a couple of reasons. The overall series record is tied up at 18-18, but the Scarlet Knights have owned this series in recent years. Rutgers has beaten Army six straight times, including ten of the last twelve. The games have not been particularly competitive either, even when Rutgers was in its early stages of rebuilding under Greg Schiano.
More importantly, Dodd's steady play has to continue. If he can pick apart Army's weak secondary and build an early lead, then the Black Knights will become one-dimensional, and abandon their comfort zone. While all of the uncertainty surrounding defending the option could make the score too close for comfort, higher expectations make this much more of a must-win for Rutgers than it is for Army. If Dodd and the offense can muster a repeat performance, then that is just what will happen.
Rutgers plays Army this Saturday at 2 p.m. at the New Meadowlands Stadium. The game will be broadcast on ESPN3.com.