Herb Wilson, Navy's right cornerback, suffered a torn thigh muscle during that glorious 21-11 victory over Pittsburgh that boosted the Mids' record to 7-0. Except for a few plays late in the 38-6 loss to Florida State on Nov. 18, he has been a spectator as Navy's record has deteriorated to 7-3.
Standing on the sideline, yearning desperately to provide the help his injury made impossible, Wilson noticed something besides the growing number of teammates who were joining him as noncombatants. The senior defender sensed the Mids lacked the intensity of those big victories over Boston College, Air Force, Duke and Pittsburgh.
"You get a feeling before a game, and in those early games it was a certain intense feeling," Wilson said. "The last few games, we've been playing without it. We've been playing with no emotion. We have to get it back.
"The problem is mental. We seemed a little flat for Notre Dame after the Pitt game, when we were so high. We just haven't gotten the emotion back after Pitt. Injuries have hurt, but I still think we can win with the guys we have."
Following a week of low-key practices, the Mids today began the full-scale buildup for the game that figures to restore the emotion, Saturday's battle with Army at Philadelphia.
"Army should be a extra incentive, if anything can be," Wilson said. "The big thing is we want to win and show people we can come back from adversity. We were 7-0 and now we're 7-3, and a lot of people figure we just beat some easy teams.
"Army is always in the back of your mind, it's such a big game. When you lose to Army, you feel like you let the whole Navy down. You just can't wait till next year, you just start thinking that it's 364 days until we play them again.
"This summer, on my cruise, the officers would bring it up. Once they found out you're on the football team, they'd ask, 'What happened last year? Are you going to win this year?' You knew they weren't talking about the whole season, just Army."
A year ago, as Navy dropped a 17-14 decision to Army, Wilson was a substitute wingback, whose only action came on the kickoff teams. The defeat was the climax of what he calls "my most frustrating year in sports." Rated even with John Kurowski at the wingback position as the season began, Wilson saw virtually no action.
"I thought a few times about hanging it up," he said, "but those of us who are seniors now were pretty close, and I stayed for the friendships. Besides, I always thought my day would come."
The day came during spring practice, when Wilson was shifted to cornerback, a position he had played as a plebe, to try to fill one of many holes created by graduation.
"I was looking forward to it, because we had switched to two wideouts on offense and I just didn't have the speed for that," Wilson said.
"Besides, the big thing I like about defense is the contact. I like to hit guys. "It's a lot more fun than a wing-back, being crushed all the time."
When Wilson came to the Naval Academy, he little dreamed it would take until his senior year before he became a regular.
"I wasn't recruited for football," said the 6-foot-1, 190-pounder from Wheeling, W. Va. "In fact, I didn't know anybody was recruited. I didn't know about the football program here. I thought you just went out they picked the best guys who showed up. I thought I'd start easy.
"Then when I went out, a plebe coach, who isn't here now, told me I was too small and too slow and he said I couldn't even try out. A few guys around here have had that story told to them, I guess. I kept after them and finally they let me try as a defensive back."
Injuries during Wilson's sophomore year created a need for backup wing-backs and he was on a merry-go-round. It was anything but merry, until those seven victories brought Navy football and the defense in particular into national prominence.
That torn thigh muscle and those three defeats have temporarily brought Wilson and mates back to earth, but they are looking forward to regaining the heights. Wilson plans to be a pilot after graduation, but he intends to be flying high sooner than that - before and after Saturday's football game with Army.
Cocaptain Phil McConkey ran today, testing the knee that was banged up at Syracuse. If he plays Saturday, it will likely be only a token appearance . . . tailback Steve Callahan is questionable because of a bruised thigh and his backup. Mike Sherlock, has a similar problem. . . Middle guard Terry Huxel is definitely out, because of torn tendons in his ankle.