After taking a break from playing a service academy in 2013, Rutgers will renew the series by playing Navy this season and Army at Yankee Stadium in 2015. Former head coach Greg Schiano always made a point in scheduling the military schools every season, and he described his feelings on the Midshipmen and Black Knights back in 2011:
"But I love the fact that we play the academies. We're so grateful, all of us, for what these kids do for our country. They have to play somebody and it's an eastern rival, a good thing for eastern football. Our fans really enjoy playing the academies. I know I love the tradition and everything they represent."
Despite being a tough matchup, I do enjoy the annual games against the service academies. It brings some of the pure pageantry back to a game that seems to get more commercial and less collegiate every year. But what a tough matchup it is. Even with the upgraded schedule, the Navy game could leave Rutgers the most bruised and battered because of the Midshipmen triple-option offense. Here's what the Naval Academy brings in 2014:
Head Coach: Ken Niumatalolo (6th year)
Key returning players: QB Keenan Reynolds, RG Jake Zuzek, FS Parrish Gaines
2013 Record: 9-4
The blueprint to beating Navy, or any service academy really, is to stop the run and force them to pass the ball. While it's as simple as that, executing that plan to perfection is much harder to do. Junior QB Keenan Reynolds completed 68 passes in all of 2013; Washington State QB Connor Halliday could come close to completing that many passes in one game. Still, with basically nothing from the passing game, the Midshipmen won nine games last season, including over Indiana in Bloomington and at home against Pittsburgh. If you're not prepared for the triple-option, it'll gash you all the way to the endzone over, and over, and over again.
And the pain of all of those cut-blocks don't heal in the days after. It could have lingering effects leading into the next game, leaving the Tulane matchup as a perfect trap game (after Navy's triple option, before the blackout against Michigan). If Rutgers can make a return to their defensive identity, the Knights should prevail. If not, it'll be a long game (or short, with all of the rushing attempts) that will hurt them in the week after too.
Defensively, the Midshipmen are a bend-don't-break unit. They limit big plays by simply going with a containment approach. This could work out for Rutgers if offensive coordinator Ralph Friedgen goes with a more methodical gameplan as opposed to the vertical receiver routes from the past couple of seasons. If Navy gives you three to four yards per play, ride Paul James all day and hope that the talent gap leads to a win in the fourth quarter.
* * *
Rutgers has a pretty track record against the service academies, even in years when Navy or Army are having a good season. And the top-ranked rushing defense should perform well against the Midshipmen, despite the odd formations and trickery they employ. If Joe Rossi brings the Knights back to a Rutgers defense, they'll have a great chance against Navy.