Throwing a fit

The Baltimore Sun

Call it one of college football's imperfect storms.

Navy, ranked near the bottom in pass defense in the country, will meet Rutgers, ranked near the bottom in passing efficiency, today in Annapolis. Whichever team improves on its deficiency might win at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.

In returning home for the first time since a season-opening win over Towson, the 1-2 Midshipmen want to get to .500 before going back on the road against Wake Forest and Air Force. In playing their first road game this season, the 0-2 Scarlet Knights are even more desperate for a victory.

"It's going to be a circle-the-wagons game for them, just like it is for us," first-year Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo said this week.

Navy and Rutgers are in their respective predicaments for different reasons.

As much as the offense struggled in the second half of last Saturday's 41-31 defeat at Duke, Navy's pass defense has yet to make good on its promise to improve from last season, when injuries contributed to the Midshipmen finishing at or near the bottom of the Football Bowl Subdivision in several categories.

"We've had a lot of coverage busts, guys not being where they're supposed to be, not pressuring [the quarterback]," said Niumatalolo, whose team is ranked 114th of 119 in pass defense. "Pass defense is a combination of things. It's an area we continue to address and try to get better at."

The Scarlet Knights expected their passing game to be one of their strengths this year, considering the loss of running back Ray Rice. But it hasn't been effective in losses to Fresno State (24-7) and North Carolina (44-12). Rutgers ranks 106th in pass efficiency.

Quarterback Mike Teel has thrown only one touchdown pass but five of the team's six interceptions, which is tied for 114th. Rutgers has converted four of 23 third downs, with most of the opportunities coming in passing situations.

It hasn't helped that the Scarlet Knights have been outscored 31-0 in the third quarter, putting Teel on his heels.

"You have to throw the ball down the field. We just didn't make good decisions there, and we will," Rutgers coach Greg Schiano said. "He [Teel] will make the right decisions there. We just have to keep coaching him, and he has to keep studying and he needs to keep doing it. If you don't throw the ball down the field, it's very hard to nickel and dime all the way down."

Navy's opponents haven't had to do that, mainly because the Midshipmen haven't put enough pressure on the quarterbacks. Except for Towson's Sean Schaefer, who was sacked three times in the second half but still managed to throw for 330 yards in the Aug. 30 opener, Navy has recorded only two other sacks.

Given that much time, Duke's Thad Lewis (317 yards) and Ball State's Nate Davis (326) have shredded Navy's zone defense, more with curl and slant routes than deep balls. Rutgers could go long, especially with the speed of wide receivers Kenny Britt and Tiquan Underwood.

Said Navy defensive coordinator Buddy Green: "They present huge problems. They're as good as you will find [on] any team we play, at the whole group of receivers. All of their receivers can beat you deep in a heartbeat and make a big play."

One thing is clear: Because of their struggles, neither team is taking the other lightly. It doesn't matter to Rutgers that it has beaten Navy the past three years, including a 34-0 win two years ago in Annapolis. It doesn't matter to the Midshipmen that the Scarlet Knights seem to be in free fall.

"This is by far the best team we've played so far," Niumatalolo said.

Said Schiano, "We respect everything about the Naval Academy."

Even its imperfections.

NOTES: : Navy will honor the 1958 Cotton Bowl team at halftime. ... Single tickets are available at $32 each, and hill-seating tickets are available for $20, $12 for kids.

navy today

Matchup: Rutgers (0-2) at Navy (1-2)

Time: 3:30 p.m.

Site: Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, Annapolis

TV: CBS College Sports Network

Radio: 1090 AM

Line: Rutgers by 5 1/2

Series: Rutgers leads 11-10-1

Last meeting: Rutgers won, 41-24, on Sept. 7, 2007, in Piscataway, N.J.

Navy offense vs. Rutgers defense: The Midshipmen should have quarterback Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada at full strength, and fullback Eric Kettani seems to be over the strained hip that forced him out on the opening series of last week's loss at Duke. The Scarlet Knights held Navy to a season-low 289 yards of offense a year ago.

Navy defense vs. Rutgers offense: The Midshipmen could be just what struggling quarterback Mike Teel needs to jump-start his season. While Navy won't have to worry about Ray Rice, who rushed for 175 yards a year ago, it will have its hands full with wide receivers Kenny Britt (14 catches, 198 yards this season) and Tiquan Underwood (10 for 107 yards), as well as tight end Kevin Brock (seven for 91 and a touchdown).

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