Navy bracing itself for fired-up Rutgers

Scarlet Knights have plenty to play for on their home turf today


If any team ever had incentive to beat Navy, it is Rutgers. How much motivation means will be determined today when the teams collide at Rutgers Stadium.

First, it's homecoming for the Scarlet Knights and no team wants to be embarrassed in front of the alumni, customarily the staunchest supporters of any school's football program.

Second, the painful memory of last season's 54-21 thrashing at Navy - a game that the Midshipmen led by 47 points entering the fourth quarter - hasn't been forgotten by Rutgers' upperclassmen.

Third, and probably most importantly, the 5-2 Scarlet Knights are near bowl eligibility for the first time in 13 years, with only one more victory necessary after five wins in their last six games.

Rutgers has been to the eligibility threshold several times in recent seasons, only to fail. For a program with one bowl appearances in 136 seasons, this is a huge moment.

Undoubtedly, this will be the sternest test for Navy (4-2) since the Stanford game. The Mids can take another major step toward a third straight postseason game with its fifth consecutive win.

Rutgers coach Greg Schiano said he believes his team has improved defensively over the 2004 unit that surrendered 613 yards to Navy's triple-option offense and is counting on more than the 33 yards rushing accumulated in that rout and certainly less than the four turnovers.

"I think we're a better team defensively overall. Hopefully, that means we'll play a little better. We're not looking at this for the first time this week," said Schiano, who mentioned ball control as another method for slowing the triple option.

The numbers certainly support defensive improvement. The Scarlet Knights have held four opponents to fewer than 100 yards rushing and rank 25th nationally against the run.

A Rutgers quarterback controversy solved itself this week when redshirt freshman Mike Teel continued to suffer from an injured right shoulder. That means senior Ryan Hart will continue to lead the offense after coming off the bench last week to throw for three second-half touchdowns in a come-from-behind, 26-24 victory at Connecticut.

Hart is Rutgers' all-time leader in touchdown passes and virtually everything else aerial. He started a school-record 32 straight games before Teel went the distance in a win over Syracuse on Oct. 15.

Navy, which meets bigger, more athletic teams nearly every week, will, as usual, depend on breakdowns in the opposing defense and proper reads by quarterback Lamar Owens. Missed assignments by defenders are the fodder for Navy's option.

"The key is to limit their big plays," Schiano said.

Rice couldn't do that last Saturday and got thumped, 41-9. Four of the Midshipmen's scoring drives lasted less than a minute.

"We know they're going to come out and try to outmuscle us," said Navy linebacker David Mahoney. "They're going to be upset from last year. They think that was a fluke and they're going to want redemption."

Navy defensive back Jeremy McGown, who suffered a broken arm at Duke four weeks ago, could return to bolster the secondary, which has been relying on several young players of late.

Coach Paul Johnson certainly isn't getting heady after his team's most impressive win of the season.

"Rutgers hasn't turned the ball over as much this year," he said. "And in this day and age, if you can't run the ball and stop the run, it's hard to play. That's what they're really good at."

Today's game

Navy (4-2) @Rutgers (5-2)

Site -- Rutgers Stadium, Piscataway, N.J.

Time -- 3:30 p.m.

Radio -- 1090 AM, 1430 AM

Last week -- Navy defeated Rice, 41-9; Rutgers defeated Connecticut, 26-24.

Series record -- Navy leads, 10-8-1

Line -- Rutgers by 6

Outlook -- A winner of four straight, Navy figures to receive a stern test from the Scarlet Knights, who have lost only to nationally ranked West Virginia in their past six games. The Midshipmen are coming off a rout of Rice a week ago and appear to be heading into the matchup on a roll. But Rutgers has plenty of incentive, including the memory of last season's 54-21 trouncing by Navy in which it trailed by 47 points entering the fourth quarter. It is also homecoming for Rutgers, which can clinch bowl eligibility with a victory. Navy is the No. 3 rushing team in the nation, with QB Lamar Owens (463 yards), FB Matt Hall (329) and a host of slotbacks leading the way. The defense played its best game of the season against Rice, with a corps of linebackers in the forefront. Rutgers has won two straight, is 3-1 in the Big East Conference and has the 25th-ranked rushing defense in the country, meaning something has to give. The team is second nationally in tackles for a loss and fourth in sacks with DE RyanNeill the primary figure. Offensively, freshman TB Ray Rice has run for 542 yards, including 217 last week at Connecticut, and senior QB Ryan Hart is expected to start after rallying the Scarlet Knights to the win with three second-half scoring passes.

Kent Baker

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