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updated: 9/15/2012 1:27 AM

Army determined to protect football against NIU

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  • The ball comes out last Saturday in Army's loss to San Diego State. Army turned the ball over three times.

      The ball comes out last Saturday in Army's loss to San Diego State. Army turned the ball over three times.
    Associated Press

 
Associated Press

Army coach Rich Ellerson knows how to fix what ails his Black Knights. Unfortunately, it's not possible during a game.

"We need to turn the scoreboard off and play," Ellerson said. "We know what wins. We don't need to go out there and focus on winning and losing. We need to go out there and focus on the things that correlate with winning -- the things we practice and preach all the time."

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Army, 3-9 last year, was poised to put that dismal season far in the rearview mirror with senior quarterback Trent Steelman running a triple-option attack that led the nation in rushing in 2011. It didn't happen. The Black Knights were stunned 42-7 last week at San Diego State in their season opener, hurt again by the costly turnovers that spoiled last season.

Army lost 22 of 36 fumbles in 2011 and Steelman kept that troubling trend going against the Aztecs, throwing two interceptions and losing a fumble, with two of the turnovers setting up SDSU scores.

Now, Army faces pesky Northern Illinois (1-1), the reigning Mid-American Conference champions, in the Black Knights' home opener on Saturday at Michie Stadium.

"We have to get over it, and that's not easy," Ellerson said. "There's no easy way around it, but we have to get over it and get focused."

SDSU led 21-0 at halftime and opened a 35-0 advantage midway through the third quarter before Army scored. Raymond Maples rushed for 107 yards on 19 carries and Terry Baggett picked up a career-high 100 yards on 13 totes to pace an offense that gained 282 yards rushing.

The Black Knights were done in by the three turnovers and not forcing any. That dropped their record to 9-44 since the start of 2006 when on the short end of the turnover margin. Army also is 2-13 in the last 15 games when not forcing a turnover.

"We've never worked harder at it, and we're better than that (last week)," Ellerson said of the turnovers. "I have this stunned look because that's my reaction."

Northern Illinois' loss came in the season opener against Iowa at Soldier Field in Chicago, and the Hawkeyes needed a late score to secure an 18-17 victory. Through two games, the Huskies are averaging 26 points and 314 yards offensively and have last year's 49-26 win over Army for a dose of confidence.

"We've got to do a good job in the secondary of keeping our eyes where they need to be," Huskies coach Dave Doeren said. "I think a big part of winning this football game for us will be protecting the ball and taking it away.

"Going into an environment like West Point, you can't be distracted by the environment," Doeren said. "You have to focus on the game itself and play within that. We've got to do a tremendous job of not beating ourselves on the road, which I think we did at Soldier Field. If we can put together a game like that where we don't turn the football over and do what we did at home last week in getting three turnovers, then we have a great chance to be in that game in the fourth quarter."

Ellerson is treating last week as a wake-up call.

"It needs to be," he said. "I feel like once again we've managed to put on a bunch of baggage with expectations that we're carrying around with us. It's sucking the fun out of the game. We need to relax and play.

"We have some good guys who love to play the game, and that needs to be evident. Seeing a bunch of guys go out there and worry about making mistakes or what somebody thinks is not worth the price of admission."

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