September 26, 2012

Army's 'young' defense running short on time

Think of a graph charting Army's 2012 football season. In the upper left corner is a line descending from the first of 12 regular season games to the final contest against Navy in the bottom right corner.

In the lower left corner of the graph is a line representing the maturation of Army's young defense starting with a 42-7 loss at San Diego State in the opener. The Black Knights hope that line starts rising soon, very soon, after a 0-3 start that includes allowing 44.0 points a game. The other losses are 42-41 to Northern Illinois and 49-37 last week at Wake Forest.

Where that maturation line manages to intersect with the games remaining line will determine Army's success or lack of it.

"They have showed they are capable, making plays here and there," Army head coach Rich Ellerson said of his defense that started three freshmen last week. "Our challenge is some of the guys are playing in their third or fourth game. Some guys are playing in their first and second game. As I said, if I can keep them out there, they'll settle in, see the games cleaner and all 11 guys will be on the same page. When that happens, we can start to gain on it. Until we get settled down and playing the game, it's going to be a struggle."

The Black Knights must win six of their final nine games for bowl eligibility beginning with Saturday's game at Michie Stadium against Stony Brook, a 3-1 club ranked No. 18 among Football Championship Subdivision schools. Stony Brook also is the defending champion in the Big South Conference that advanced to the quarterfinals of the 2011 NCAA FCS tournament.

Stony Brook, which is playing Army for the first time, is coming off a 32-31 win over Cornell of the Ivy League. The Seawolves' only loss was 28-17 at Syracuse two weeks ago. Their other two wins are 49-17 over Central Connecticut and 77-7 over Pace.

Army's young and under-sized defense will be at a size disadvantage against Stony Brook's offensive line that features four 300-pounders, including 6-8, 345-pound right tackle Michael Bamiro.

"Stony Brook is a real challenge," Ellerson said. "They have two things going for them. One is when we look at how we match up with them. In many cases, if not most cases, we'll be looking across the ball at somebody who is as good or better than anyone we've seen this year. The other thing is they're used to winning. They're a championship subdivision team that's a powerhouse playoff team. They're a relatively veteran team that's played a lot of games and won a lot of games."

In last year's FCS playoffs, Stony Brook defeated Albany 31-28 before losing on the road to Sam Houston State 34-27 in Huntsville, Texas. Sam Houston State was ranked No. 1 and finished as the runner-up to North Dakota State.

In the Wake Forest game, three freshmen -- cornerback Chris Carnegie, linebacker Alex Meier and free safety Brandon Fusilier-Jeffires -- made their first career start and senior defensive end Jarrett Mackey played his first game of the season after missing all but last year's season opener when he suffered a knee injury. Two other players who made their first career start this year are sophomore defensive tackles Bobby Kough and Mike Ugenyi.

A sixth defensive player who has made his first career start is senior Ty Shrader, but he was replaced by Fusilier-Jeffires. At Wake Forest, Fusilier-Jeffires led Army with 15 tackles, including 10 solo.

Meier, Carnegie, Fusilier-Jeffires are listed as starters again this week, along with senior cornerback Josh Jackson, who was sidelined last week by a groin injury.

The Offense

On offense, Army is leading the nation in rushing with 399.0 yards a game, but the Black Knights are battling injuries.

Quarterback Trent Steelman, center Ryan Powis and lef tackle Ben Jebb were injured late in the fourth quarter when the Black Knights were trying to drive for a go-ahead touchdown. against Wake Forest. Ellerson said Powis and Jebb are considered day-to-day and probable for Stony Brook.

On Army's critical late drive that crossed midfield, Steelman left the game with a rib injury, returned for one play and left for the balance of the contest. Ellerson said backups Angel Santiago, a sophomore, and A.J. Shurr, a freshman, are taking the snaps until the Black Knights determine on Thursday if the fourth-year starter (Steelman) can practice and of course, play on Saturday. Santiago played briefly, but Shurr's playing time has been limited to serving as the holder on kicks so far.

"It's a wait-and-see game," Ellerson said of Steelman's status. "He's determined to play. I want to make that call late in the week. If I think he can get through the game, then I absolutely want him out there. If it's one of those deals where he's going to be able go for a couple of plays and then come back out with another setback, I'm not going to let it go. We have a lot of confidence in A.J. and Angel. They took the turns (Tuesday) morning will do the same (Wednesday). We'll make the call on Trent Thursday."

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