A funny thing happened to Navy since they almost upset South Carolina a few weeks ago: their defense is in complete freefall.
Failure to stop opponents on third down also has been troublesome. Navy ranks 119th out of 120 Football Bowl Subdivision teams in third-down defense, and over the last two games has allowed opponents to convert 17 of 24 attempts.
Rutgers hasn't exactly been lighting up the scoreboards themselves. The Scarlet Knights are at least a respectable pass blocking team, but have one of the very worst rushing attacks in the country. Navy's undersized attack could be the perfect elixir in that respect. Think back to 2008, in what was a very painful loss in the last game in this series: Rutgers may have given away the game with bad turnovers, but Jourdan Brooks ran through the Midshipmen with his best Walter Payton impression.
This could be an offensive breakout game, but the bigger worry is on the other side of the ball. The Scarlet Knights' may be their own worst enemy in that respect, having to tamp down on their trademark aggression this week in favor of disciplined football. Rutgers otherwise has traditionally been well positioned to defend Navy as an undersized team that emphasizes speed, doubly so with all of the multi-DB packages in store for this one. That will be Wayne Warren's number this year, no? They were usually able to take out the slotbacks on the edge. The vexing nature of the triple option was always with bottling up the run inside, and keeping a spy around up front to make sure the quarterback doesn't try anything bold. It will fall on Scott Vallone and Justin Francis to disrupt plays in the backfield before they can develop in full.
The book on Navy has always been the same: build a double touchdown lead, force them to pass, and then tee off on their quarterbacks. Oh, and make sure every defender remembers to wear shin guards (there's a reason that teams usually don't do too well the week after playing an opponent that runs the option.) Speaking of roster limitations, they usually aren't the greatest on special teams either, which could be another bonus on Saturday. Rutgers, as always, needs to win the turnover margin in spades. Frank Cignetti will likely call plenty of runs to stop Navy's ball-control strategy from gaining momentum, and every Scarlet Knight unit will fixate on field position above any other factors.
Navy finds themselves in an unfamiliar position of difficulty with this game: the schedule doesn't get any easier with East Carolina and Notre Dame coming up, and Troy/SMU aren't exactly pushovers either. At 2-3, they are staring down the precipice of a down year after a long run of success. As Rutgers knows all too well, that is not an enviable position to be in. The trick will be to not take any opponent lightly, and keep up the intensity level for all four quarters. If 2011 is all about redemption and righting past wrongs, then it's time for RU to reassert its recent edge over Navy.
Prediction: Rutgers 26, Navy 17