- Associated Press - Friday, September 9, 2011

WEST POINT, N.Y. (AP) - Army coach Rich Ellerson is between a rock and a had place _ his Black Knights are 0-1 and now have to face a San Diego State team that seems to thrive in stopping the Wishbone.

San Diego State humbled Navy 35-14 in the Poinsettia Bowl last December and routed Cal-Poly 49-21 last week in Rocky Long’s head coaching debut for the Aztecs, registering nine tackles for loss.

The first meeting between the teams could be one Army regrets, even in the friendly confines of Michie Stadium on a day that promises to provide a charged-up atmosphere with the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11.

“They’ve been practicing against the option now for a little over nine months,” Ellerson said. “They’re obviously going to be as well schooled as anybody that’s ever played (against) this offense.”

The Black Knights are coming off a disheartening loss at Northern Illinois. Army had 409 yards of total offense, 303 of it on the ground with 10 players having at least 20 yards rushing. They also had five offensive plays of at least 20 yards, and linebacker Steven Erzinger had the most tackles (21, including 3.5 for a loss) by any player in the nation during the first week of play.

But the final score? 49-26.

“We talk about playing on the edge, and that’s about as far away from the edge as I’ve ever seen a football team in the first game,” said Ellerson, who last season led Army to its first postseason victory since 1985, 16-14 over SMU in the Armed Forces Bowl. “It speaks to maybe the expectations that followed us into this season.”

In 2010, Army ranked third in the country with a turnover margin of plus-1.23 per game. The Black Knights have their work cut out if they hope to match that number after a minus-1 showing in the opener. Army committed three turnovers _ quarterback Trent Steelman was in on all three _ and two led directly to Huskies’ touchdowns, negating the two takeaways registered by the Army defense.

“We need to step up the intensity,” Army senior linebacker Chad Littlejohn said. “We need to fire out on them, put the hurt on them instead of coming back on us.”

The Black Knights have lost only two games under Ellerson when on the plus side in turnovers and just once when holding at least a two-takeaway advantage. The Black Knights are 10-2 when winning the turnover margin under Ellerson, in his third season at Army.

“Turning the ball over three times against a good football team will almost always break your heart,” Ellerson said. “We have this marvelous moment for a do-over. We can decide how we’re going to play, how we’re going to stay in the moment and how we’re going to get on the edge and play on the edge and feed off each other’s energy. Let’s be those gutty little Black Knights and give somebody a go.”

Ellerson knew the season would be a challenge from the get-go. Army used 23 players at Northern Illinois _ including nine freshmen _ who had never played in a college game, and half of the 22 starters were making their debut with the first unit.

“We were afraid of making a mistake,” Ellerson said. “That’s me reading tea leaves again, but we just didn’t quite let it go. We were so busy trying to not make a mistake that we weren’t playing the game. There was not a joy in our heart as we were flying around out there.”

The Aztecs present a formidable challenge. Quarterback Ryan Lindley completed 15 of 27 passes for 203 yards and four touchdowns last week as San Diego State had 492 yards of total offense. Lindley is the NCAA active career leader in passing attempts (1,312), and ranks second in completions (739), yards (9,740), touchdowns (71) and total offense (9,517).

“We can’t kid ourselves about who and what we are,” Ellerson said. “We’re underdogs, doggone it, but that’s OK. We like that place, and we’ll have a plan and we’ll play better.

“I don’t want to give them a long list of things to get done. Turn off the scoreboard, play the next play and light our hair on fire, what hair we have, and go after these guys. If our best ain’t good enough, it ain’t good enough. But let’s make sure our best is out there.”

San Diego State coach Rocky Long, the Aztecs former defensive coordinator who took over for Brady Hoke after the latter took the Michigan job last year, expects a difficult day on the eve of the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks.

“It’s an honor and a privilege that we’re going there at this time,” Long said. “I’m sure they’ll be emotionally charged up and play well.”

Ellerson is unbeaten in two meetings against San Diego State. He led Cal Poly to victories over the Aztecs in 2006 and 2008.

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