And in that corner… The Army Black Knights

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Looking at the 2010 schedule back in August, few people could point to the Army vs. Notre Dame game at Yankee Stadium as anything more than the novelty of playing a football game in the House that George Built.

But that was before Army turned its program around under coach Rich Ellerson and the Irish limped into the Bronx one game shy of bowl eligibility and needing a victory against the Black Knights to clinch the .500 record necessary to get to the postseason. Making things even more interesting is that Army’s been playing better football than the Irish, already qualifying for their first bowl birth since 1996.

With too many questions and not enough answers, I turned to the Hudson Valley Times Herald-Record‘s award-winning Army football beat writer Sal Interdonato, who was kind enough to give me the scoop on the Black Knights, who should have Irish fans absolutely terrified. He’s been covering the day-to-day of Army football since 2007, and his blog is a must read this week for those trying to get a feel for what the Irish are facing this Saturday night, at 7 p.m. from Yankee Stadium.

I asked, Sal answered:

Inside the Irish: Put into context the turnaround that’s taken place under coach Rich Ellerson. Sure, Army is 6-4, but that’s a worst-case scenario after losing heart-breakers to Hawaii, Temple and Rutgers, three games that Army has to feel like they had. What’s the confidence level of the Knights as they head into Yankee Stadium?

Sal Interdonato: Army’s come a long way on offense this season. The Black Knights scored 18 touchdowns last season. They have more than doubled that with 38 scores in 2010. A huge weight was lifted off the shoulder of Army players when they became a bowl-eligibile team at Kent State last Saturday. Army can now play loose and the Black Knights still have a lot to play for and a lot to prove. They can clinch their first winning season since 1996 with a win over Notre Dame.

ITI: Everybody saw the absolute egg Notre Dame laid on defense against Navy. There are some obvious similarities between the Army and Navy offense. What do you think the game plan will be for Army on offense? Will they try to replicate the Midshipmen’s success?

SI: Army certainly has the fullback in Jared Hassin to test the heart of Notre Dame’s defense like Navy’s Alexander Teich did. However, Army’s offense is at its best when it spreads the ball out in the run with quarterback Trent Steelman and slotback Brian Cobbs. Army coach Rich Ellerson expects Notre Dame to play a different defense than it did against Navy. I wouldn’t be shocked if Army takes to the air more. Steelman is coming off the best passing game of his career.

ITI: It’s been a bit of an up and down year for the Army defense, but they’ll be facing an Irish offense that’s starting a true freshman at QB and missing a lot of weapons. What will Ellerson’s D need to do to stop the Irish offense, and particularly a guy like Michael Floyd?

SI: One of the big keys to this game is can Army get to and rattle Notre Dame quarterback Tommy Rees with pressure. Army sacked Rutgers freshman quarterback Chas Dodd eight times earlier this season and they did with blitzes from every angle. I expect Army to put the heat on Rees and it will need a big game from senior defensive end Josh McNary, its all-time sack leader. If Rees has a lot of time to find Floyd and the Irish’s receiving corps it could be a long day for Army because it has been sub-par against the deep ball all season.

ITI: Yankee Stadium is a little different stage than Michie Stadium and Notre Dame is a bigger name than most on the Army schedule. What does a game in primetime against Notre Dame mean to the Black Knights?

SI: It’s a chance for Army to show the nation it’s for real and it will be relevant in the college football landscape again. Army has a national following but a good showing here might bring more fans, who are a little skeptical after 14 straight losing seasons, on board. Army’s rise would be taken more to heart with a win over Notre Dame. It will show its closing on the level of its service-academy brothers Navy and Air Force, which is huge for recruiting.

ITI: What’s the formula for a Army win? What’s your gut feeling for Saturday night?

SI: Army’s had a simple formula for winning this season. Jump out and score touchdowns early and win the turnover battle. As long as Army takes care of the football. it can play with anyone on their schedule. I expect this to be a very physical game. If both of Army’s lines can hold up in the trenches. it will be very competitive. I see Notre Dame as maybe a touchdown favorite Saturday but I wouldn’t be surprised if Army pulls the “upset.”

For those that haven’t checked out Sal’s Army Football Blog, please do so here. Special thanks to Sal for taking time out of his busy schedule to give us the advanced scouting report.