Rutgers head coach Kyle Flood said what football coaches always say when facing an opponent with a losing record.
He talked about Army being better than its 2-7 record and being a team that's improving under veteran coach Rich Ellerson.
But it maybe it was more than hackneyed coach-speak with Army's 2012 team when No. 23-ranked Rutgers (7-1) entertains the Black Knights at noon ET at High Point Stadium in Piscataway, N.J.
Army, with four freshmen starters and two sophomore first-year starters in addition to sophomore second-year starting middle linebacker Geoffery Bacon, might be a 1-0 team after defeating Air Force 41-21 last week rather than a battered 2-7 club.
"Coach Ellerson does a tremendous job, and I think they've gotten a little better," Flood said. "I think sometimes records don't always show that, but I think every year he's been there, their team has gotten harder to play against."
From the point Army was 0-2 and Ellerson committed to more talented but younger players in the Wake Forest game on Sept. 26 with the hope his green players could pick up his intricate double-eagle flex defense in time to save the season, it was a matter how soon they improved and how many games were left once they did so.
Well, it's too late to save bowl eligibility once the Black Knights lost their seventh game 30-22 on Oct. 27 to Ball State. But Army is rejuvenated now that it still has a shot at the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy following last week's 41-21 upset of an Air Force team. The Falcons (5-4) arrived at Michie Stadium riding a three-game winning streak.
Against Air Force, Bacon recorded 13 tackles to lead a defensive effort that held the nation's second-leading rushing team that was averaging 366.3 yards a game to 103.
They do a great job running to the football.
- Rutgers HC, Kyle Flood
Flood, who was a Rutgers assistant coach the past seven years before he was promoted when Greg Schiano left to take over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, says the key to Army's defense is the collective effort of working together.
"They do a great job running to the football," Flood said. "They play with a lot of strong safety, Will linebacker body types on their defense. And the one thing you see is tremendous effort and tremendous swarm to the football. They get a lot of hats there. They've got a good defensive line, but they're going to give you different looks up front. They're going to give you different pressures, different line stuns, and we'll have to do a great job of making sure that we execute the plays one level at a time.
The intricacy of Desert Swarm -- the name for Ellerson's unit as the defensive coordinator at Arizona -- was what was missing earlier with so many young players, according to Eastern Michigan coach Ron English after his team beat Army 48-38 three weeks ago. English was familiar with Ellerson when both coaches were at Pac-10 schools in the 1990s, and he said Army's youth was preventing Ellerson from running all his defensive packages.
Army's four freshman starters on the current depth chart are whip defensive end T.J. Atimalala (5-11, 260), rover Alex Meier (6-2, 200), free safety Brandon Fusilier-Jeffires (6-1, 185) and cornerback Chris Carnegie (6-0, 180).
The first-year starting sophomores are defensive tackles Bobby Kough (6-3, 239) and Richard Glover (6-0, 247). All six of the young starters are bigger than the players they've replaced in addition to their talent.
Kough has been a starter all year, but Glover is making his fifth start since the Wake Forest game.
Meier and Carnegie have started every game since their first starts against Wake Forest, making this their eighth straight start. Fusilier-Jeffires is starting his seventh game since Wake Forest. The game he missed he was injured.
In addition to the improvement of the younger players, senior Nate Combs returned to the lineup against Air Force after missing two games with an injury. He finished with eight tackles, two for a loss, in addition to an interception and falling on a fumble in the end zone for a touchdown at the end of the game.
Kough had seven tackles and Fusilier-Jeffires seven tackles, with one for a loss, and an interception. Glover had four tackles with one for a loss.
The different looks Army's defense gives is the challenge for Rutgers' players executing their blocking assignments. Flood is more familiar with this aspect than most new head coaches. He served as Rutgers' assistant head coach and offensive line coach before his promotion. This is the sixth straight year the teams have played, with Rutgers winning all five since the series was resumed in 2007.
"In the run game, that means you better execute the first level blocks before you rush to the second level, to the third level," Flood said. "And in the passing game we've got to make sure that we protect well before we can worry about getting guys out in routes and throwing the ball down the field, et cetera. Because if you don't block the first level of the run game and you don't protect well, it's going to be very hard to move the ball against this defense."
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