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Off to best start since '96, Army faces Rutgers

Off to its best start since 1996, there is a feeling this could be a special year at Army.

The Black Knights' game against Rutgers on Saturday at New Meadowlands Stadium could go a long way in saying just how special.

Rutgers (3-2) has had its way with Army (4-2), winning the last six by a 185-55 margin. The Scarlet Knights have scored 30 or more points in seven of the previous 11 meetings against the Black Knights, winning nine.

This year might be different. The Black Knights and their triple-option offense have scored 30-plus points four times, including the last three games, which is a program first since 1996.

In '96, Army went 10-2 and landed in the Independence Bowl vs. Auburn. They have not made a bowl since.

"Overall, we're excited about where we're at and about what we're doing," Army sophomore quarterback Trent Steelman said. "Any time we step on the field, we expect to come away with the win. With the type of athletes we have on this team, the team of character, we expect success. Things are starting to turn around."

Coach Rich Ellerson has been the architect of Army's resurgence. He has 10 wins in 19 games since taking over the program, including three road wins this year.

"We face a tremendous challenge in Rutgers this week," Ellerson said. "They're a football team that, we sense, is playing with a bit of a chip on its shoulder. They're starting to find themselves offensively, and that can mean an awful lot of things."

After winning its first two games, Rutgers stumbled at home against an undermanned North Carolina and then disappointed in a Homecoming game against Tulane, a team Army beat 41-23 last weekend.

There has been one important change since the Scarlet Knights played Tulane. Starting quarterback Tom Savage hurt his right hand, his throwing hand, and true freshman Chas — that's pronounced Chase — Dodd replaced him.

All Dodd did against Connecticut last Friday night was to pass for 322 yards and two touchdowns in a 27-24 win. His performance included a 52-yard TD pass and a 45-yarder that set up a game-winning field goal with both throws coming in the final four minutes.

"I think the impressive thing was how poised and how well-schooled he was within the framework of that system," Ellerson said of Dodd. "He was able to go out and get a win for them against a very good football team."

Dodd will be facing a Black Knights' defense that is tied with Oklahoma for No. 1 in turnover margin, averaging +2.0 a game.

"We attack the football," Ellerson said. "The football team identified that as an area that we wanted to excel in. We understand that correlates with success. That correlates with winning like no other box-score statistic. The men have taken that to heart and you see that ball awareness all over the football field, both in the kicking game and on defense."

While Army has scored 194 points through six games — 10 points more than it scored all of last season — it is facing one of the nation's top defenses. The Scarlet Knights are ranked ninth nationally, giving up an average of 14.4 points. Their rushing defense is 10th in the nation, giving up 90.2 yards.

"It's a veteran, talented outfit that takes great pride in how they play on that side of the ball," Ellerson said. "We're playing well offensively. We're doing some good things offensively, but we're still not quite the juggernaut that we could be, we think we can be. We're still growing into that."

Rutgers middle linebacker Steve Beauharnais said Army's triple option is so smooth it can break a play on any down.

"If you look anywhere else with your eyes, or start thinking we can do something more than our assignment, it's going to hurt us a lot," Beauharnais said. "It's eye discipline the whole game. It's a 60 minute game and you have to make sure you're on point every time. If you don't then it's going to get real ugly around here."

Rutgers and Army last played at the Meadowlands on Oct. 12, 1996, with the Black Knights winning 42-21 at Giants Stadium. New Meadowlands Stadium is co-owned by the Giants and Jets of the NFL.