When Navy takes the field tonight at Rutgers Stadium in Piscataway, N.J., the Midshipmen will not be the only team enjoying a revival.
The Scarlet Knights also are making a comeback, which should add some spice to what has been a pretty good rivalry.
"It's a pretty big game. Two 2-1 squads going against each other with a lot of confidence. Sometimes it's harder to handle success than failure," Navy quarterback Craig Candeto said.
"We can't take anything for granted, because of where the program has been. Every game is important for us from here on out. We're not good enough to expect to beat someone by 30 points. This is going to be a dogfight."
Navy last enjoyed a winning season in 1997 and last produced a 3-1 start in 1996. That year, Navy went 9-3 and won the Aloha Bowl over California. Rutgers has not had a winning season since 1992 and has not started 3-1 since the 1993 season.
The Midshipmen also would equal their win total over the previous three seasons by taking down the Scarlet Knights, who finally are surging again under third-year coach Greg Schiano.
Having come off a 2-10 year, Navy could not be playing much better. The Mids have blown out Virginia Military Institute and Eastern Michigan by a combined 59 points, played No. 19 Texas Christian tough in a 17-3 loss, are running the ball extremely well with their triple option attack and playing the kind of defense that hasn't been seen in Annapolis since the mid-1990s. Rutgers has beaten Buffalo and Army each by two touchdowns while losing to Michigan State by 16.
Navy coach Paul Johnson is wary of Rutgers' huge offensive line that averages 305 pounds and of its 4-3 defense that features 260-pound senior end Raheem Orr and 290-pound senior tackle Gary Gibson, whom he expects to try to bully the smaller Midshipmen up front.
Junior strong safety Jarvis Johnson (11 tackles against Michigan State) and preseason All-American senior cornerback Nate Jones figure to be active pursuing Navy ball carriers.
Expect Rutgers to stack the line of scrimmage and force Candeto to go to the air. Expect Navy to use cut blocks and quickness to counter the Scarlet Knights' size and keep its productive ground game cooking. The Midshipmen, who make no effort to hide their love for the run, rank fourth in the nation in rushing (291.3 yards per game).
"[The Scarlet Knights] have got a lot of team speed and have good size on defense. They are really big and can run," Johnson said. "They're getting ready to start their conference slate, which is pretty tough. We're trying to gain some momentum and turn things around. It's an important game for both programs."
Navy's fortunes ultimately might turn on its much-improved 3-4 defense and its ability to generate turnovers. The Midshipmen lead the NCAA in turnover margin (plus 2.33), have forced an average of four turnovers per game and rank eighth in the nation in scoring margin, having allowed 11.3 points per game - 25 points fewer than a year ago.
The Midshipmen's athleticism will be tested against Rutgers' power game, led by sophomore fullback Brian Leonard and halfbacks Clarence Pittman and Justise Hairston. Rutgers likes to employ two tight ends in its power-I and play the smash-mouth game. The Knights rarely throw deep.
"You know where [the Knights] are going and they're going there anyway. I like that," Navy junior outside linebacker Lane Jackson said. "I like coming downhill and hitting somebody in the mouth.
"They're bigger than us, and they probably think they can manhandle us. We're hungrier than we've ever been. The more you win, it gives you more to lose. We've got more to lose than we ever did before."
Navy (2-1) at Rutgers (2-1)
Site: Rutgers Stadium, Piscataway, N.J.
Time: 7 p.m.
TV/Radio: CN8/WJFK (1300 AM), WNAV (1430 AM)
Line: Navy by 1
Series: Navy leads 9-7-1
Last week: Navy defeated Eastern Michigan, 39-7. Rutgers had a bye week after beating Army, 36-21.
Navy offense vs. Rutgers defense: Behind QB Craig Candeto, FB Kyle Eckel and SBs Eric Roberts and Tony Lane, the Midshipmen are fourth in the NCAA in rushing with an average of 291.3 yards a game. Navy must contend with a solid, 4-3 Rutgers defense, starting with 290-pound tackle Gary Gibson and 260-pound DE Raheem Orr, who leads the team with 2.5 sacks and led all Scarlet Knights linemen in tackles a year ago. Rutgers is young at LB, where it starts two sophomores in William Beckford and Will Gilkison.
Navy defense vs. Rutgers offense: The Midshipmen are allowing only 11.3 points a game, are getting excellent play from the front seven in their 3-4 defense, and lead the country in turnover margin. Eddie Carthan is one of eight LBs in the nation with two interceptions and he has caused four turnovers. Rutgers figures to test Navy's run defense with its huge offensive line, and QB Ryan Hart has thrown for more than 200 yards in every game.
Special teams: Navy K Geoff Blumenfeld is off to a good start with field goals in each game and has touchbacks on kickoffs with regularity. Rutgers is unsettled at PK, but both teams are getting good field position in the punting game.
- Gary Lambrecht