How good is the unbeaten Navy football team?
Good enough, says United Press International's board of coaches, which voted the Midshipmen the 14th spot in this week's poll.
All right, says the Associated Press collection of sportswriters and sportscasters who put the Mids 17th in their weekly balloting.
"Hogwash," claim the cynics and oddsmakers, who point to Navy compiling a 6-0 record against a collection of foes with a combined mark of 12-28-1.
Last year, the Mids were 7-0, including a 21-11 defeat at Pitt here, before they ran into Notre Dame and were whipped, 27-7, in Cleveland.
Some observers of the college football scene believe the Mids are in for a similar beating Saturday when they face 12th-ranked Pittsburgh, 5-1. The host Panthers are 13 1/2-point favorites.
Victories over The Citadel, 26-7; Connecticut, 21-10; Illinois, 13-12; Air Force, 13-9; William and Mary, 24-7, and Virginia, 17-10, don't rattle coffee cups, but then, "Every team in the country plays teams that aren't so good," said Navy fullback Larry Klawinski.
"People will look at scores and judges us but you can't do that," Klawinski added. "Every year, teams beat teams they aren't supposed to. You can't take anyone lightly."
On the surface, Pittsburgh is not taking Navy lightly. At least publicly.Offensive tackle Mark May, a 6-foot-5, 287-pounder, says. "Navy was good enough to whip us last year and looks good enough on film to do it again."
"They are a fine, disciplined team and that alone makes up for the lack of size on talent," added May, a junior and one of several Pitt players headed for All-America honors. "Navy may not have as many great athletes as other teams in the country but they have a lot of good athletes in great condition.
"Last year, we were coming off a big win over Florida State and thought we were prepared for Navy," May said. "We didn't expect what happened to us. I don't know much about their offense but I know for a fact their defense isn't overrated."
The Navy players agree they haven't faced a team so far they shouldn't have beaten badly. Inconsistency, failure to take advantage of scoring opportunities, mental lapses and absence of a killer instinct has prevented the Midshipmen from averaging about 35 points game, rather than the current 19.
In only two of its six victories was Navy a clear winner at the beginning of the fourth quarter. In the other games, the Mids has to fight for their lives.
"Those types of wins give you confidence but the percentages eventually catch up with you," said Navy linebacker Mike Kronzer. "You don't want to be hanging on in the fourth quarter every week."
Saturday's game doesn't shape up as a defensive struggle. Pitt is averaging 360 yards on offense and has scored 89 points in its last three victories, including a 26-14 triumph at 12th-ranked Washington last week.
"If we play like we've played at some points this year, we could easily be blown out," Kronzer said. "We really want to beat Pitt and prove we belong in the rankings."
Navy's abilities were also in question last season before it upended Pitt to run its record to 7-0. Then came the loss to Notre Dame, followed by losses to Syracuse, 20-17, and Florida State, 38-6, before a 28-0 win over Army. The Mids concluded their season with a 23-16 victory over WAC champion Brigham Young in the Holiday Bowl.
"I'd be the first one to admit we couldn't be 6-0 or 5-1 competing against teams like Illinois or Pittsburgh every week," said Navy Coach George Welsh. "Pitt and Notre Dame are in another league. But we have a good team and since we're undefeated we certainly should have consideration for the ranking whether it's for the 14th place, 22nd place, or whatever.
"Any team in Division I should be considered. Every team in the country faces some teams that aren't highly regarded. I certainly don't think we're a farce because of whom we play, regardless of what we do against Pitt. I'd be very disappointed if we got blown out because I believe we're at the point where no one can do that to us."
Pitt's schedule bears out Welsh's words. The Panthers' six opponents have a combined 20-18 record. Pitt defeated Kansas (2-4), Temple (6-1), Boston College (1-5), Cincinnati (1-5), and Washington (5-2). Its only loss came at the hands of North Carolina (5-1).
"They've played a few teams that aren't that good, too," Welsh said. "I don't know how good all the teams in the rankings are. I don't think much about polls and I don't talk to my players about polls.
"To me, polls put extra pressure on the kids and get every team up to play you. At the Academy, the kids have too many other things to worry about," Welsh said. "I want them to think about Pitt. The other day they were in the locker room discussing their midterm grades."
The Navy players looked at last week's game with Virginia, which they won, as the beginning of the tough part of their schedule. Following the Pitt game, Navy travels to Notre Dame, returns home to host Syracuse, and travels to Georgia Tech before closing out the regular season against Army in Philadelphia.
"We started to turn the corners against the tough teams last week," said Navy linebacker Tom Paulk."Virginia was very tough."
"Beating Pitt just means we can say we can win against the better teams in the country," said Kronzer, "but you can't sit on that when you play a Notre Dame the next week. That's why you can't be judged on one game. Pitt is looking to go 9-1 and get a bowl bid. Plus they want to revenge last year's loss and show people it was a fluke (pitt destroyed Navy, 45-0 and 34-17, the previous two years). We want to show people it wasn't."
Pitt Coach Jackie Sherrill believes Navy belongs in the top 20.
"Regardless of who they played, they've won six times. And they've won a few with people hurt," said Sherrill. "You have to respect a team like Navy. They don't give you anything and they come at you on every down. I remember what happened last year."
While some Mids pretend they don't notice or don't care about polls, they realize a victory over Pitt could help them the rest of the year and probably insure a bowl bid.
"Well I looked at the polls and I wonder how Brigham Young, a team we beat at the end of last year, can have the same record and be ranked ahead of us now (11th), said Paulk. "I guess scores makes a difference. But I know a victory over Pitt would convince a lot of people that Navy is a very good football team."
Navy tailbacks Steve Callahan (knee strain) and Mike Sherlock (pulled hamstring), along with defensive tackle Mark Merrill (broken bone in foot), are definitely out this week. Defensive end Reggie Trass (knee sprain) is 50-50 . . . Counting the Mids' last two victories in 1978, they have now won eight straight games. It is the longest win streak since 1959-60, when the team recorded 10 straight triumphs . . . Paulk, with 13 tackles, one sack and two pass knockdowns, was ECAC defensive co-player of the week . . . Duane Flowers, who gained 136 yards and scored a touchdown in his first career start last week, was also selected to the ECAC All-East team.