Four Teams Can Play, Only Two Will Show

Think you have a handle on this upcoming Saturday's Rutgers-Navy game in Annapolis? You must either be a brilliant cognitive behavioral scientist, or a twisted psychic genius. Something like that.

Because there are four teams that could potentially play when the Scarlet Knights battle the Midshipmen. The good and bad Rutgers teams, and the good and bad Navy teams.

Will we see the Rutgers team that stunned Michigan State, or the one that crumbled against New Hampshire? The Rutgers offense that averaged 16.5 points against incredibly weak defenses from Temple and Pittsburgh, or the Scarlet Knight offense that rolled up big numbers against Vanderbilt (37 points), Syracuse (31) and West Virginia (30)?

Given the nature of the Big East, should it be considered an overachievement or an underachievement for the Scarlet Knights to have played reasonably close games against Syracuse, West Virginia and Boston College? Is Rutgers--with a 4-5 record--a much-improved team under coach Greg Schiano, or are the Scarlet Knights little better than in past years, with the key difference being that the conference--now without Virginia Tech and Miami--has come down in a big way, much closer to Rutgers' bottom-feeding level?

Just what is Rutgers' identity? Based partly on results, partly on inconsistent offensive production, and partly on spin-doctoring and interpretation, the Scarlet Knights have two identities. They're either an explosive but inconsistent team that has substantially improved itself from past years, or a sputtering doormat that has feasted on really lousy clubs--Vanderbilt, Temple and Kent State--aside of that one big win over Michigan State... in the season-opener, when wacky things happen. Which Rutgers team will show up to play the Johnson Boys this upcoming weekend? Who the heck knows?

And then there's the Midshipmen themselves.

Just which Navy team will show up on Saturday? The one that crushed Tulsa and Delaware by an average of more than 21 points, or the team that got flattened by Tulane and Notre Dame by an average of 25? Speaking of Notre Dame, the Midshipmen lost to the Irish after having an off week. Does that mean Navy will show rust after its second of three bye weeks in the 2004 season? Or will Paul Johnson have his troops sharp, crisp and focused after 13 days not called "gameday"? Will Navy be tight and overly pumped-up, as they were against the Irish? Or will Aaron Polanco be a cool customer who will make first-rate reads and superior decisions at the line of scrimmage?

You don't have to think about this game for very long before coming to the conclusion that there are way more questions than answers. Both Rutgers and Navy have split personalities, and this game will be decided--naturally--by two questions:

1) which Rutgers and Navy teams will show up?

2) if both teams bring their equally matched sides to the table--be they good or bad--who will prove superior?

Can Navy's worst personality be less harmful than Rutgers' worst level of play? On the other hand, can the Midshipmen encounter the Scarlet Knights at their very best and yet still outplay Rutgers?

Chances are, Navy has less margin for error than Rutgers on Saturday, because even though the Big East is a poor conference, playing West Virginia within five points (35-30) is a noticeable statement of competitiveness. Navy probably wouldn't have the horses to compete with the Mountaineers the way Rutgers did. In the end, the Johnson Boys will need the Scarlet Knights to show their not-so-attractive side. If Navy can be sharp while Rutgers comes out sluggish, the Midshipmen will be able to turn an off week into an "on" performance in their regular-season home finale.


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