West Point — Remember the jokes?
It’s not the Big Ten; it’s the Big Nine and Northwestern.
Looking to fill a spot on your intramural schedule? Northwestern is available.
These days the joke is on any team that’s foolish enough to take Northwestern lightly.
“They were occasionally good. Now they’re consistently good,” said Army coach Rich Ellerson, whose team will host the Wildcats Saturday at 3:30 p.m. at Michie Stadium. “That’s what you want to be. I’m not surprised.”
Northwestern, 2-0, is coming off a season in which it finished 7-6, despite losing its starting quarterback, prospective Heisman Trophy candidate Dan Persa, the last two games of the season with a ruptured Achilles tendon from which he is still recovering. He’s missed his team’s first two games, but, Ellerson said forlornly, “We expect we’ll see Persa.” Before going down last season, he set the conference all-time record with a 73.5 completion percentage, including 15 touchdown passes; he ran for nine more.
In Persa’s absence this season, backup Kain Colter has completed more than 70 percent of his passes, in addition to rushing for more than 300 yards. The Wildcats are second in the Big Ten with 273 rushing yards per game.
Conversely, Army qurterback Trent Steelman, who suffered a pectoral injury in last week’s 23-20 loss to San Diego State, is iffy. Prior to his injury last week, Steelman rushed for 166 yards, threw for 43, and scored three touchdowns against San Diego State. Backup Max Jenkins threw three incomplete passes.
“He may not be the weapon, at times, that we feel Trent can be,” Ellerson said, “but his ability to manage the offense, his ability to execute and get us into the right play and keep giving the offense a chance is really remarkable when you consider the relatively few snaps he has had.”
Since taking over for Randy Walker, who died prior to the 2006 season, Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald’s teams have gone 36-29; he signed a 10-year contract extension in May. The last Northwestern coach with a career winning record was Ara Parseghian, who finshed 36-35 in eight seasons before leaving for Notre Dame in 1964.
The last game between the two teams was in 1988, during which time Northwestern was at its incompetent, joke-ridden worst. Army won 23-7. Senior linebacker Steve Erzinger admits there’s a sense of urgency about the game. Having lost their first two games, the Black Knights are perilously close to letting the season slip away just as it’s barely begun.
“That’s the reason why you keep score. You’re trying to win at the end of the day,” he said. “You have to make improvements from week to week. You’re going to find little things to work on and that’s great. We’ve obviously done that from week one to week two. Now it’s about putting everything together and coming out with a win.”
What helped lead to the Black Knights’ downfall last week was its inability to hang onto the ball. Literally. Despite more than doubling San Diego State’s time of possession, Army had eight fumbles, losing the ball three times. One of those came at the Army 27-yard line; it took just three plays for the Aztecs to score a touchdown that gave them a 14-0 first-quarter lead. Early in the fourth quarter, having tied the game at 20, Army kicker Alex Carlton missed an extra point that would have given his team the lead. San Diego State scored its winning field goal on its next possession.
“We have to be more precise at what we do,” Ellerson said. “If we can do that, if we can bring that same passion, aggressiveness and resilience to the contest with better execution, with more guys with their eyes and feet right, we can compete on this stage. But that’s going to take all of that to have a chance. In the absence of both of those things, we have no chance.”