PISCATAWAY, N.J. – Five games into the season, Rutgers is full of surprises.
The Scarlet Knights have a freshman starting at quarterback in Gary Nova. They are 4-1, riding a three-game winning streak and their defense is ranked among the best in the country, especially when it comes to turnovers.
Heading into their Homecoming on Saturday, coach Greg Schiano is getting another unexpected surprise. Navy (2-3) is coming to town, riding its longest losing streak since 2002, a three-game slide highlighted by an embarrassing 63-35 loss to Southern Miss.
"This definitely is a huge game for us. We've got to find a way to rally," Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo said. "I think that's one of the things that is happening. Guys are too worried about the results instead of just taking one play at a time. That has to be our approach. Take one play at a time. Don't worry about the overall picture.
"Just worry about the here and now."
The 63 points were the most allowed by a Navy defense since 2002 when the Midshipmen lost to North Carolina State, 65-19. The 28-point loss was the worst Navy has suffered since a 34-0 defeat to Rutgers in 2006.
Schiano knows that Niumatalolo will have his team ready. The Midshipmen usually rebound after a loss, posting an 11-4 mark, in that scenario, since he took over in 2008.
"I love the fact that we play the academies," said Schiano, whose team will play Army next month at Yankee Stadium. "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. So there's definitely a tradeoff."
The tradeoff for Rutgers is getting its defense ready to play the Midshipmen's triple-option offense, which is leading the nation in rushing at 366 yards per game.
Senior quarterback Kriss Proctor provides another threat. He is trying to become the first quarterback in school history to rush and pass for more than 100 yards in three consecutive games.
Schiano has kept a library on Navy's offense since taking over at Rutgers at the start of the decade.
"It's such a hard thing to defend," Schiano said. "People who say they can defend it are full of baloney. You just try to fight and scratch and claw and see at the end of the day if you can keep them out of the end zone. They know it a heck of a lot better than any of us who are trying to defend it. It's what they do 365 days a year. It's tough. It's a challenge."
Rutgers defensive tackle Scott Vallone said Navy plays fast up front and they try to get defenders on the ground, which usually means a lot of cut blocks.
"We obviously know if they're able to establish the fullback, it's going to be a long day," Vallone said. "That's any triple option offense. So we know me and (Justin Francis) and then the two outside (defensive linemen) are going to have to do a great job of containing the fullback. And if we can limit him, then we can do a great job of stopping their offense."
Rutgers played one of its best games of the season last week, posting a 34-10 decision over Pittsburgh in Nova's first start. He threw two touchdown passes and has completed 32 of 68 pass attempts for 412 yards and four touchdowns.
"I didn't expect it to happen this fast," said Nova, who replaced Chas Dodd and rallied the Scarlet Knights to a 19-16 double-overtime win at Syracuse. "Knowing the situation, being a backup, I just came in here trying to work hard every week. If coach made a decision, then he did.
"But if he didn't, I would still support the team and be there for them."
Redshirt freshman Jawan Jamison leads the Rutgers rushing attack with 243 yards on 91 carries, while junior Mohamed Sanu is one of the top wide receivers in the country with 45 catches, 455 yards and five touchdowns. He is tied for sixth in the country in receptions per game (9.0).
On defense, Rutgers is tied with South Carolina for the most forced turnovers (22). It had four interceptions in the win over Pittsburgh, giving them 12 for the season, tied for second in the nation.
Navy, meanwhile, has allowed 122 points during the losing streak.
"We just have to light that spark again. During the first couple games of the season, I thought we were all having a good time, having fun playing football," Navy captain and starting end Jabaree Tuani said. "We can't stress the weight of the game, because in the end, it is a game and we need to enjoy playing it."