Preview: Rutgers at Army

Rutgers travels to Army for Friday's 8 p.m. tilt on ESPN2. It is a battle of freshmen quarterbacks as Rutgers' Tom Savage tries to become the second true freshman in school history to win a road game. Army quarterback Trent Steelman leads the Black Knights' triple option. Rutgers won the last five games, holding a 158-45 scoring advantage during the streak.

It is not a marquee matchup, and will cause yawns and laughs of dismissal by many, but Rutgers' game Friday at Army could serve as a telltale sign on what remains for the rest of the season.

The perpetually rebuilding Black Knights are 3-4, with a win over Southeastern Conference doormat Vanderbilt (2-5) to go with wins against winless Ball State (0-7) and winless Eastern Michigan (0-6).

It is a game the Scarlet Knights not only must win, but need to do so comfortably rebuild confidence lost last week in the loss to Pittsburgh.

A comfortable win and Rutgers' bowl hopes could focus on one of the better Big East slots. A tight win or, gasp, a loss and the Scarlet Knights could find it difficult to become bowl eligible.

Army's schemes, both offensively and defensively, could give the Scarlet Knights problems at times, but Rutgers is bigger, faster and more skilled at nearly every position, so Army's unconventional twists should not be reason for concern.

However, a rarity will happen when Scarlet Knights quarterback Tom Savage goes under center, and history does not speak well for Rutgers.

Savage will become the fifth true freshman quarterback to start a road game for the Scarlet Knights, and is trying to become the second to win a road game. Ryan Cubit, who beat Buffalo in coach Greg Schiano's first game, is the only Scarlet Knights true freshman quarterback to win on the road. Savage is also one of six true freshmen starting quarterbacks in the nation.

Furthermore, Rutgers' past four true freshman quarterbacks – Cubit, Ryan Hart, Mike McMaon and Jacque LaPreairie – were a combined 2-19 as starters. Savage is 3-1 as a starter, but the wins are against Howard, Florida International and Texas Southern.

Of course, Army also starts a true freshman at quarterback in Trent Steelman.

Rutgers offense vs. Army defense
It will happen week after week. The opposing defensive coordinator (in this case Army co-coordinators Payam Saadat and Chris Smeland) will tweak its blitz packages and coverages in an attempt to confuse Savage, who is seeing something new whenever he gets on the field.

Army's blitz-oriented defense is already unique. If the Black Knights aren't blitzing from the safety spot, junior middle linebacker Stephen Anderson is creeping up to the line of scrimmage and lining up over one of the guards. From there, Army will blitz in a bunch of different ways.

A week ago Schiano decided the best offensive plan was to throw the ball, and leading rusher Joe Martinek only carried nine times (for 23 yards). The most effective run against a physical Pittsburgh front was from the "Wildcat'' formation, but the Black Knights do not possess the size, quickness or speed the Panthers displayed.

Rutgers RB Joe Martinek.
Rutgers' offensive line averages 6-foot-6, 300 pounds, and should be able to push around and wear down an Army starting defensive line averaging 6-1, 252 pounds. The bruising Martinek should be able to run between the tackles, providing the offensive line blocks with consistency and can avoid undisciplined penalties like false starts and delay of games.

Whether it is finally the week speedy freshman tailback De'Antwan Williams also gets a meaningful carry or more remains to be seen, but the running game should get healthy. When the teams met two years ago, Rutgers ran for more than 400 yards. Last season the Scarlet Knights rolled up 521 yards of offense.

Army is allowing 114.3 rushing yards per game, and the Scarlet Knights have feasted on weaker competition en route to averaging 158.8 rushing yards per game, despite netting only 38 yards last week.

Rutgers also has an advantage on the perimeter because the Black Knights have no one in the secondary capable of keeping up with speedster Tim Brown. He leads the Scarlet Knights with 28 catches, and he is averaging nearly 20 yards per reception.

One thing Savage has done is limit his turnovers – he has one interception in 124 attempts -- and that will be crucial again. Army has intercepted nine passes, including four by junior free safety Donovan Travis.

But Army does have a play-maker at the line of scrimmage in 6-foot-1, 225-pound defensive end Josh McNary, who plays more like a linebacker. He has a staggering 9 ½ sacks and 15 ½ tackles for loss.

Army offense vs. Rutgers defense
Not surprisingly, Army's offensive success hinges on discipline, that is the discipline of the defense.

Swarming to the ball at the line of scrimmage isn't the most important thing against the Black Knights' triple-option. Instead, stopping junior fullback Kingsley Ehie is paramount to shutting down Army's running offense.

And Rutgers is built for it.

The Scarlet Knights are 11 th nationally against the run, allowing 91.5 yards per game. Three of the last four opponents have run for less than 50 yards, although the ranking took a beating a week ago when Dion Lewis quick-footed his way to 180 yards and two touchdowns.

The Black Knights average 222.6 rushing yards per game, which ranks 12 th nationally, and they spread the ball out. Steelman, the freshman quarterback, is the leading ball carrier, keeping it 117 times and gaining 3.5 yards per rush.

Rutgers LB Antonio Lowery.
However, the real damage comes when the run is set up off Ehie's dive into the line. He has carried 73 times for 313 yards (4.3 ypc), and his success means junior slot back Patrick Mealy has fewer defenders to beat on the perimeter. Mealy is averaging 6.9 yards on 58 carries.

Army's blocking scheme is also a huge issue. It is based on cut blocks (diving at defensive linemen's feet) and crack-back blocks (receivers coming down the line of scrimmage to pick off linebackers and linemen. It is such an issue the Scarlet Knight's defensive linemen will wear shin guards to protect against lower leg injuries.

If Rutgers can limit the run, the Black Knights will have a difficult time moving the ball. Steelman has attempted 49 passes (25 completions) and is averaging 66 passing yards per game the worst in the nation. Army's 288.7 yards of offense per game is the sixth-worst.

Special teams
This is where schemes aren't as tricky, and is a place for Rutgers' athleticism to show. After coming close to blocking a punt in a few games, the Scarlet Knights got one last week against Pittsburgh.

While the kick return game has been an issue for Rutgers, the week was spent trying to improve the blocking and settling on returners.

Scarlet Knights kicker San San Te is 9 of 14 on field goal attempts and punter Teddy Dellaganna is averaging 41.8 yards per kick.

Army's Alex Carlton is 12 of 16 on field goal attempts, including a long of 51 yards. Punter Jonathan Bulls is averaging 39.7 yards per punt.

Prediction: Rutgers 27, Army 10

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