When George Welsh, the Navy football coach, checked his schedule before the season, he could be forgiven if thoughts of a 6-0 start danced through his head.
With opponets like The Citadel, Connecticut, Air Force and Virginia, only Illinois seemed to be a serious problem in the first half of the season.
Illinois has been beaten, barely. Today, Virginia comes to Navy-Marine Corps Stadium in Annapolis at 2 p.m. to face the 5-0 Midshipmen, and Dick Bestwick's 4-2 Cavaliers have already proven they are anything but pushovers. b
"I'm not surprised by the way they've played," said Welsh. "'last year, when we beat them, 32-0, they just weren't together yet. But they came on at the end of the season and they have everybody back, they have experience and they have a new quarterback."
While Virginia quaterback Todd Kirtley, a 1978 Robinson High School graduate, has certainly played a role in his team's resurgence, he has not had as much effect on Virginia's success as Wake Forest's Jay Venuto has had on his team's. Venuto has stepped in to lead the Demon Deacons to a 5-1 record that has stunned everyone -- including the Deacons.
"I think we all thought we would be improved," said Venuto, a junior who has already thrown for 1,392 yards while completing 58 percent of his passes. "But none of us thought we would be this good, this fact. I think we were all just hoping to have a winning season and use that to build for next year."
Wake's 5-1 record and Maryland's 3-3 mark has produced a situation unique in the Wake-Maryland rivalry in the eight years Jerry Claiborne has coached the Terrapins: Wake is a slight favorite in the 1:30 p.m. game in Groves Stadium in Winston-Salem, N.C. which will draw a sellout crowd. iBowl scouts will be checking out the Deacons.
One person the crowd will not see is Maryland tailback Charlie Wysocki, left home at the last minute when his bruised thigh swelled. Wayne Wingfield will start at tailback for the Terps.
"Venuto and the experience they gained on defense a year ago are the difference for them," said Claiborne.
"Venuto and his receivers have been unbelievable. Their defense isn't very big but they make the big plays. That's how they've won five close games -- big plays."
Big plays costs Howard (3-3) a 17-15 loss to Virginia State last week and the Bison will be hoping to cut down on mistakes at Greensboro, N.C. when they play MEAC rival North Carolina A&T (2-4).
A&T is coming off a 16-6 loss to Maryland Eastern-Shore, a team Howard handled eariler in the season, but is always tough at home. Bison Coach Floyd Keith, disappointed with his offense the last two weeks, will start senior Brian Thomas a quarterback over Ronald Wilson, the starter in the first six games.
Georgetown and Catholic would be delighted if nothing changed this week from last week. The Hoyas (4-0) eased to a 26-6 win over Gallaudet with many starters, including quarterback Bob Gerard, sitting out with injuries. Gerard and the others are expected to play against visting Johns Hopkins (2-2).
Catholic is on the road again, at Iona (3-3). The Cardinals are coming off a superb 34-3 win at Duquesne, a game in which the Dukes had two -- count them, two-yards of total offense. Surrendering 109.5 yards a game, Catholic leads Division III schools in total defense.
Another game in Washington Will match 4-2 University of the District of Columbia against 2-4 Bowie State. That game will be played at Dunbar.
But most local fans will be focusing on Annapolis and Winston-Salem, where, surprisingly, the one team among the four not in the current bowl picture is Maryland.
Navy, which started 7-0 last year, is hurting. Both tailbacks, Mike Sherlock and Steve Callahan, were hurt in last week's 24-7 win at William and Mary, and sophomore Duane Flowers will start.
"We'll have to depend on the fullbacks more," said Welsh. "It's too bad this happened when it did. I thought we really came together last week in the second half and Sherlock was one of the big sparks."
Bestwick has no such problems. Both his starting running backs, Greg Taylor and Tommy Vigorito, are averaging more than 100 yards a game rushing and Bestwick rested his starters in the second half in last week's 69-9 rout of James Madison.
Bestwick knows his team, which has slowly been making people aware that it can play football, can make a big impression with a win over the 16th-ranked Midshipmen.
"It's definitely an opportunity for us to get some recognition," he said. "In terms of wins and losses, we've done about as well as we could have hoped so far. We've won every game we should have won.
"But we haven't peaked yet as a team by any means.We know we can play better. And we know that if we play like we are capable, we can beat anybody on our schedule."
Which makes the Mids completely they opposite of Wake Forest, a big-play team. Last week, Venuto hit fullback Albert Kirby for a 60-yard touchdown pass when he spotted North Carolina coming with an all-out-blitz.
All told, Venuto has thrown 11 touchdown passes. Maryland has thrown, two, one of the reasons Claiborne will start Bob Milkovick over Mike Tice at quarterback.
But ineffective blocking and a damaged tailback, Wysocki Bruised thigh), trying to run 20 times a game have been as much a problem for the impotent Maryland offense as the quarterback.
In spite of the change to the more-mobile Milkovich and in spite of the fact that Wysocki's backup, Wingfield, is a better pass reciever, Wake Coach John Mackovic expects Claiborne's game plan to be unchanged.
"They like to line up and shove it right down you throat," he said. "Control the ball and control the game. That's what they've done to Wake in the past (outscoring the Deacons, 225-22, in the Claiborne era). Now, though, I think we've got a defense that can stand in with them physically."
The game is crucial for both teams, especially in the ACC race. Wake is 2-1, Maryland 1-1 and a second conference loss almost invariably eliminates a team from the title picture. N.C. state, the leader with a 3-3 record, hosts 0-1 UNC, while 0-1 Duke perhaps the league's weakest team, is home to Clemson (1-1).
Claiborne is 7-0 against Wake Forest and none of his Terrapin teams has ever lost four straight games. If Wake breaks those strings, the Treps will be out of the league race, probably out of bowl contention and undoubtedly in for a long November.