WEST POINT – The starting quarterback is hurt and likely won’t play. The team’s leading rusher has a concussion and likely won’t play. With a chance of a winning season already past, there is still a chance of a degree of redemption if Army beats Navy Dec. 10. The problem? The Black Knights are playing Temple Saturday.
“I think what they’re going to do is they’re going to stay in the moment,” said Army coach Rich Ellerson, whose team will play the Owls at Lincoln Financial Field at 1 p.m. “I think that young competitors have such a challenge today because they are so many other voices and so many other venues out there that are trying to pull them out of the moment, that are trying to make them look down the road, that are trying to make them play for something other than the next opportunity to snap the football. And these guys are absolutely determined to stay together and focus on the next fight, and they’re doing it.”
Of course if you’re fighting it helps to have both fists working, and Army has been playing the last three games with at least one of them tied behind its back. Quarterback Trent Steelman has been out since suffering an ankle injury against Vanderbilt Oct. 22. And the Black Knights’ leading rusher, Raymond Maples, is likely to miss his second straight game after suffering a concussion in practice almost two weeks ago.
And if that wasn’t bad enough, they are playing a team whose own offense is ranked first in the Mid-American Conference, including running back Bernard Pierce, who’s first in the MAC and 15th in the nation, with 115 rushing yards per game. Defensively, they lead the MAC, having allowed just over 13 points per game.
“They’re a very, very physical, very veteran offensive football team, particularly on the run side,” Ellerson said. “The quarterback’s legs – [Chris] Coyer is really something. Obviously, the running backs we’ve seen in the past, Pierce and [Matt] Brown.”
In the Owls’ 42-35 victory over Army last season it was Brown who did most of the damage, rushing for 226 yards and four touchdowns. Conversely, it was Steelman who set a career-record with four touchdowns scored and one TD pass. This time around, it’ll likely be a couple of freshmen – quarterback Angel Santiago and running back Larry Dixon – who will need to share the load.
Though Ellerson would not confirm Santiago would start over Max Jenkins, he compared Temple’s defense to that of Rutgers, which beat Army last week at Yankee Stadium, and said, “We’re absolutely going to need the quarterback’s legs involved in the option game for us to have a chance to move the ball consistently. They’re both right there, but I’m pleased with what we saw from Angel last week. I don’t know that we could have expected much more.”
Against Rutgers, Santiago took every snap, rushing for 72 yards on 30 carries and completed six of 15 passes for 77 yards. The 30 carries were the most by an Army player since 2008. Dixon, on the other hand, rushed for a team-high 93 yards, and his 6.5 yards per carry is second only to Maples.
“Just keep on the ball and just keep staying effective in our assignments and our technique,” Dixon said. “We need to play better as we play better teams.”
As for having gotten comfortable with Santiago, Dixon said, “It doesn’t take too much time. We get a lot of reps in practice and we see a lot of people in that position, and I think we have good chemistry with anyone that plays that position.”
They’re going to need it.
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The questionable tripping penalty that likely cost Army a touchdown against Rutgers was a bone of contention last week. And, yes, it’s still sticking in Ellerson’s throat.
On the play, slotback Stephan Fraser rushed from the Army 48 yard line to the Rutgers 1, but Army guard Frank Allen was called for tripping, nullifying the play. Army trailed by a single point at the time, and never got closer.
“Yeah, I did look at that,” Ellerson said. “It’s unfortunate. It’s unfortunate. If there is a trip there, it’s clearly not an intentional trip. It’s non-consequential. It’s a shame.”