George Welsh is not usually an excitable coach. He doesn't usually place a lot of importance on any one game.
He's making exceptions for the Liberty Bowl.
Welsh will be coaching Navy for the last time Wednesday night in the bowl, against Ohio State. He is leaving to coach the University of Virginia and he has said privately that he wants to win this game more than he has any other in his nine-year tenure at Navy. For the record, he calls it simply "a big game," but there is a gleam in his eye when he talks about it.
"It's against Ohio State, a tradition-rich football school; it's the Liberty Bowl and it's the last game of the year and my last game at Navy," he said. "It's a chance . . ."
He didn't finish the sentence, but the implication was obvious: Welsh wants to leave Navy with a victory.
"Sure it would be nice to win it for the coach, but we're going out to try and win it for ourselves," said quarterback Marco Pagnanelli. "He did what he had to do and we're going to do what we have to do."
The Buckeyes (8-3) were cochampions of the Big Ten with Iowa and are 14-point favorites to beat the Midshipmen. The game will be televised on cable (USA network) and on WBFF-TV-45 in Baltimore at 8.
Welsh has been livelier than usual in practices and his enthusiasm has spread to the team. "We're really looking forward to playing this game," said tight end Greg Papajohn. "We can play with Ohio State and we can beat them. We're loose and we're ready."
Ohio State Coach Earle Bruce says this is also a very important game for his team. "We have to make the best possible impression on the audience because of the prospective recruits who might be in it," he said.
The Liberty Bowl will mark Ohio State's 10th consecutive bowl appearance, but the Buckeyes have lost seven of them, not having won since they beat Colorado in the Orange Bowl in 1976.
Buckeye quarterback Art Schlichter, who holds virtually every Ohio State passing record, has started 47 straight games. He also has been the quarterback in the last three bowl losses--to Clemson in the Gator Bowl, Southern California in the Rose Bowl and Penn State in the Fiesta Bowl.
"That doesn't leave a good taste in your mouth," said Schlichter. "It's been disappointing to never win a bowl game. I've played well and we still lost, so maybe if I play bad against Navy, we'll win. Who knows?"
Schlichter passed for 2,392 yards and 15 touchdowns this season, including 31 of 52 for 458 yards against Florida State. The Ohio State offense also features the running of tailback Tim Spencer, who gained 1,121 yards and scored 12 touchdowns.
The Buckeyes yielded only 96 yards a game rushing, making them ninth in the nation in rushing defense, but they gave up an average of 276 yards a game passing, the most of any team in the country.
"We play in a passing conference," said Bruce. "Not many people try to run on us."
Navy will try, according to Welsh.
The Midshipmen's main threat is Eddie Meyers, the nation's fifth-leading rusher with 132 yards a game. "To be successful, we're going to have to mix it up on offense," Meyers said. "We're going to have to be able to throw the ball to take the pressure off the running game."
"If we had a great passer and great receivers, we might throw 30 times a game, but we don't," said Welsh. "We got this far by running the tailback and we'll try to establish that against Ohio State. I know we're going to have to throw the ball, but we aren't going to just drop back and throw it every time."
Welsh has made two changes in his secondary. He said he'll start Brian Cianella at rover in place of Rusty Smith and Kurt Dixon at safety for John Foley. "Cianella and Dixon have played better lately," he said.
Bruce said he was also contemplating a change. Backup quarterback and kicker Bob Atha has been moved to flanker for this game and Bruce said he may start him in place of Cedric Anderson. Anderson had trouble with a flight connection and missed a workout Sunday, which didn't sit well with Bruce.
"We moved Atha to flanker for the bowl game and he's done very well there," Bruce said. "Even if he doesn't start, he'll play a lot."
As a kicker, Atha has made 39 of 40 extra points and 12 of 17 field goals this season.