- Associated Press - Friday, September 16, 2011

WEST POINT, N.Y. (AP) - Two games into his third season at Army, coach Rich Ellerson certainly isn’t where he wanted to be _ winless.

“There are all kinds of relatively easy ways to really improve the performance of this football team,” Ellerson said as the Black Knights (0-2) prepared for Saturday’s game against unbeaten Northwestern (2-0) at Michie Stadium. “The difference between where we are and where we want to be is not that great.

“We don’t have to be up on our tippy toes trying to do something heroic physically.”

Army’s relentless triple option has been purring nicely behind quarterback Trent Steelman, producing more than 700 rushing yards. In last week’s 23-20 home loss to San Diego State, the Black Knights had 446 yards of total offense, 403 of it on the ground.

Both totals marked the best output in Ellerson’s tenure at West Point, and Army will enter Saturday’s game against the Wildcats with the nation’s second-ranked rushing offense, averaging 353.

“The team can strike,” said Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald, who’s been preparing for this game for months. “If you’re out of place and you’re undisciplined, it can go to the house on any play.

“We do the best job we can for our defense simulating the speed of the option, but that’s going to be our biggest challenge _ trying to execute what they do because it’s completely different from anything else we see. Scoring and scoring early and starting fast in the game is going to be critically important.”

Maybe.

Maybe not.

All that yardage and all that time of possession _ Army ranks second in the nation through two games, averaging 37:35 of possession time _ haven’t benefited the Black Knights. Army has lost five straight games when reaching the 400-yard mark in total offense.

So what gives?

Army, of course.

Fumble here, fumble there, fumble everywhere.

This isn’t last year, when the Black Knights were third in the nation in turnover margin at plus-1.23 per game. They’ve turned the ball over three times in each of the first two games and are minus-2 per game in turnover margin. Against San Diego State, which was decided on a fourth-quarter field goal, Army lost three of eight fumbles.

Army, which did not lead in either of its first two games, marched to the San Diego State 25-yard line in the closing minutes, but the Aztecs’ defense held with a pass breakup, a sack and a forced fumble. That spoiled a standout day by Steelman, who rushed for a career-best 157 yards and three touchdowns.

“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.

“We proved that we can be competitive. If we can take care of the football, then who knows?”

The Wildcats could very well make it another difficult day for the Black Knights, even if star quarterback Dan Persa sits again. Northwestern is 14-1 in its last 15 regular-season games against nonconference opponents, including seven straight.

Persa, who was touted for the Heisman Trophy before the season, has yet to play as he recovers from a torn right Achilles’ tendon suffered last November. He’s expected to be kept out until the Wildcats open Big Ten action against Illinois on Oct. 1.

“I think I’ll be 100 percent ready by Illinois,” said Persa, who’s been practicing. “I’d rather miss two or three games than play two and then miss the season. I don’t have to hurry back because we’re winning games.”

Thanks to sophomore backup Kain Colter, who has run Northwestern’s no-huddle, spread offense like a veteran in his first two starts.

Colter completed 17 of 24 passes for 197 yards and ran for 71 more with a touchdown to lead the Wildcats to a 24-17 win at Boston College in the season opener. And last week he completed 10 of 13 passes without an interception and ran for 109 in an easy 42-21 win over Eastern Illinois.

Northwestern resembled Army in that one _ without the turnovers. The Wildcats had 437 yards of offense, 320 on the ground behind a physical, imposing offensive line _ starters Patrick Ward, Ben Burkett, Brandon Vitabile, Brian Mulroe and Al Netter, who have average measurements of 6 foot, 5 inches and 300 pounds.

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Notes: Army leads the nation with 140 rushing attempts. Northwestern is second with 121. … Army won the last game in the series, 23-7, in 1988 at West Point. But the Wildcats lead the overall series, 3-1, and are 8-5 against the service academies.