Let's start with what everyone knows. Rutgers comes into this game ranked 15th in the country after soundly defeating the Buffalo Bulls 38-3 last Thursday night, while the Navy Midshipmen come in 1-0 after what many have described as a rocky performance against the Temple Owls last Friday night. So often in the leadup to a game stats from that team's last performance are brought up, but to be completely honest I don't know how much you can really gauge from opening week. Not only do team's need some time to shake the rust off, but the strength of the first week's opponent is not yet known. Thus, for all those Rutgers fans saying that Navy won't be good this year because they barely got past Temple (and I've heard this argument a lot over the past week) I would ask you how you know that Buffalo is really that much better than Temple?
But enough about week one, let's now take a moment to focus in on tonight's game. Navy's biggest strength going into this game may be emotion, which in and of it self needs to be harnessed properly to even be a good thing. It's no secret that the Mids would love to avenge last year's loss, and it's been well documented by almost every single member of the New York area media that Rutgers should pound Navy, which has unfortunately been lumped in with the likes of Norfolk State and Buffalo by an ignorant host of columnists, pundits, bloggers. So, we can say with certainty then, that the emotional edge in this game goes to Navy. Rutgers does maintain home-field advantage, but so often in this case the team with something to prove is more than likely to come out with more intensity and (hopefully) focus than the team which is supposed to win by a comfortable margin.
Now that we've established that, let's turn our attention to the offense. A lot has been made about different formations the Mids may come out of on offense and different looks they may give the defense. While I agree Paul Johnson will likely try to extend his playbook beyond the the more basic looks we saw last week, the name of the game will continue to be execution. Rutger's did not "solve" the triple option as so many ignorant columnists like to point out, but rather they contained it through executing their defensive assignments when Navy's offense did not. Mark my words, if the offense executes, and does so effectively, Navy will score points on Rutgers. If things aren't clicking however, then I think we see the genius of Paul Johnson start to pull out the stops. As Phelix mentioned in his preview, Rutgers is all about quickness and precision on defense, that is to say that their team speed and explosiveness off the ball help them to shed blocks and disrupt the option before it really even gets started. After a fairly "vanilla" game plan last week that was based mostly around variations of what we've come to consider regular option looks, I think the offense will try to incorporate more misdirections, traps, and screens in the game plan to try to throw Rutgers for a loop. Remember, Rutgers was firing the corners last year and did not do a great job of covering the slot backs out of the backfield. If Kaipo can get protection the big play in the slot will be there, so look for Navy to possibly come out throwing on a more frequent than usual basis. While we're probably not going to see an offensive explosion, I think it's safe to say the Midshipmen will compile yards and will not be shut-out as we were last year.
On defense however, Navy may be facing more of an uphill battle. While the Midshipmen defense played a respectable and arguably valiant first half against Rutgers last season, I have my doubts about the defenses' ability going into tonight's game. It's not that Navy showed complete ineptitude on defense last Friday night, but it's the little things that concern me. While you can get away with taking poor angles and sloppy tackling against a team like Temple, there is no way Navy will get out of Pascataway with a degree of respectability if they cannot do those two things on defense. In addition, Navy's linebackers and defensive backs are going to have to find a way to shed the blocks of Rutgers' much more imposing offensive line, which is arguably one of the most underrated in the entire country. Lastly, they have to stop a Heisman trophy candidate in Ray Rice while not allowing the big play to develop when Rutgers does put the ball in the air. This is much easier said than done, and will put a lot of pressure on not only the linebackers but on Jeff Deliz and Jesse Iwuji, who are going to have to play alert and disciplined against both the run and the pass. More than anything else however, Navy NEEDS to force turnovers. Last year's defense was not any better talent wise than this year's defense, but what it did very well was force turnovers. I want to see our guys go after the ball tonight and take some chances in pass coverage.
The last aspect of the game worth addressing is special teams, if for no other reason than it's what killed us last season. Focus is the name of the game here, which means following through on your blocks while staying in your lanes on returns. Navy must win the field position game if they are going to come out with the "W" tonight. The Scarlet Knights lived in Navy territory last year, and if the game develops a similar tone it will only be a matter of time until Rutgers takes a commanding lead.
My heart wants to go with the Midshipmen tonight but my head tells me Rutgers is just too strong. I think we will see a much more competitive game (in terms of the final score) than last year's 34-0 loss, but I'm skeptical of Navy being able to come in and win considering how much time and energy Schiano and his team have put into defending the option. Navy will not have the luxury of playing a team which has never faced the triple option, and will instead have to work for it's yards offensively and execute a game plan that exploits Rutgers' speed and pursuit.
While I'm confident Navy will score points on Rutgers, I have, like many fans, some serious reservations about the defense and it's ability to stop Rutgers' athletic wide receivers (not to mention an All American like Rice.) If Teel has time (which he probably will) to sit in the pocket there is no way Navy's zones will be able to contain Tiquan Underword and company, who have the ability to to make plays not just downfield, but in the open field. It's an important distinction to make, because as Navy's defensive zones stretch downfield, there are fewer defenders underneath in position to make a play on the ball or the receiver. As I've said before, Navy's defenders are going to need to play smart. This means being aware of their zones and taking better angles in reaction to the ball carrier. To win this game, the Mids need not only win the turnover battle, but they need to win the field position battle. This is a younger Rutgers team which has not faced some of the adversity of past teams, so if Navy can take a lead or steal some momentum, I think this game has a chance of developing into a tight battle going into the second half. This is the scenario we want, but the one I'm not certain we will get. To be frank, I don't have a good prediction for this game, and after predicting Navy would win last year I'm not even sure I want to make one. Nevertheless, I think Rutgers wins by a "comfortable" 10(ish) points. Call it 34-24, Rutgers.
Also: Phelix's thoughts.