As a former wishbone quarterback, San Diego State head coach Rocky Long has a soft spot in his heart for the triple option.
"It's the only offense in the world on the chalkboard you cannot stop," Long said. "It's the best offense that's ever been designed because you don't have to block everybody."
Long and his Aztecs, coming off a season-opening loss at Washington, get a first-hand look at the best rushing team in the nation a year ago when they host Army on Saturday night. The Black Knights averaged 346.5 yards rushing in 2011 and their top seven runners are back hoping to prove that last season — Army finished 3-9 a year after winning a bowl game — was an aberration.
"I know we've prepared well and had a tremendous offseason," said Army head coach Rich Ellerson, 15-22 at Army as he embarks on his fourth season. "They've been focused on this start, worked hard and prepared well. We're a more mature football team than we were a year ago. Mature beyond our years, if you will. Last year we were starting more freshmen than seniors. This year we're starting about the same number of sophomores as we are seniors, but we have a significant senior presence on both sides of the ball."
The Aztecs ran for 199 yards and a touchdown, while quarterback Ryan Katz completed 10 of 19 for 128 yards and a TD with one interception in last week's 21-12 loss to the Huskies.
Defensively, San Diego State gave up 328 yards of total offense, limited the Huskies to 3.4 yards per rush, and made 10 tackles behind the line of scrimmage, including three quarterback sacks. The Aztecs will be hard-pressed to do that against Army with senior Trent Steelman over center for the Black Knights.
"We have a four-year starter at quarterback. That is good anywhere, but it's especially good at a service academy which runs the triple option," Ellerson said. "He's beyond being an experienced, good player. He's a great young leader. He's handled some incredibly difficult moments. This football team's had some great days and some tough days."
Steelman, healthy again after an injury-plagued junior year, is the only player in academy history to rush for 2,000 yards and pass for 2,000 yards. Despite missing three games last season and parts of two others, Steelman was the Black Knights' second-leading rusher with 645 yards and led the team with 12 rushing touchdowns.
"The quarterback is the key to any option offense," Long said. "He knows what he's doing. He's as good as there is at the triple option, reading it and running it himself. He's a big, strong guy that breaks tackles, gains a lot of yards on his own."
Much of what went wrong last fall for Army can be attributed to the 22 fumbles the Black Knights lost. They recovered 14 other fumbles, but all those bouncing balls had a detrimental effect in the long run.
Still, that forgettable season has served as motivation for the start of a new one.
"If you can turn that one glaring statistic back the other way, the scoreboard looks different and we feel different about the (2011) season," Ellerson said. "But we can't do that. We've owned that fact. You're not going to go through something like last year and not find a way to use it.
"It was so excruciating and so hard. We weren't in a hurry to dismiss it, but we drained it for all it was worth."
Ellerson has had to walk a fine line since, making sure his offense has the right mind-set.
"What we don't want to do is go out there and play afraid," Ellerson said. "If you're not careful and make a big deal about this, your purpose in life is to go out and not fumble. When you do that, you fumble and you're not having any fun. We expect to be in some tough situations and we expect to handle those situations."
The teams met last year at Michie Stadium and the Aztecs never trailed, holding on for a 23-20 victory. Steelman ran for 157 yards and scored three touchdowns, but the Black Knights were undone by eight fumbles.
Long expects another tight affair.
"This game's going to be really close," Long said. "You have to work really hard to find where your edge is."
Notes: The Black Knights are making their first trip to the West Coast since playing at Washington on Sept. 23, 1995. It's Army's first trip to California since the Army-Navy game at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif. on Nov. 25, 1983. ... Last season Army was 0-8 away from West Point, but the previous year the Black Knights were 5-0 in their opponents' home fields.