For three weeks, Maryland quarterback Boomer Esiason, by his own admission, has been terrific and terrible in every game. The Terrapins' other quarterbacks call him, "The most erratic quarterback in the nation," he says.
When Maryland plays Syracuse at 1:30 Saturday in the Carrier Dome, Esiason will be looking to change that and lead the Terrapins (1-2) to their second straight victory.
In other games involving Washington area teams, Navy will need improved play at the skill positions to break a two-game losing streak. It plays undefeated Duke, probably the most improved team in the Atlantic Coast Conference, at 1:30 in Durham, N.C.
Virginia, which, according to its coach, has played more poorly each week since an opening loss to Navy, is at home against North Carolina State at 1:30. Howard, with starting quarterback Sandy Nichols returning after a shoulder injury, will play Florida A&M in a Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference game at the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville at 7.
Syracuse will need more than an erratic performance by Esiason to beat Maryland. After opening the season with a 31-8 victory at Rutgers, the Orangemen have scored 38 points in three straight losses, two in the Dome.
Two things are working against the Orangemen in Saturday's game.
First, Syracuse is primarily a running team (155 rushes, 80 passes). Maryland is fifth nationally in rushing defense, allowing 68 yards per game. "When I hear the word 'run,' I smile," said defensive tackle Gurnest Brown.
Secondly, Syracuse quarterbacks have foundered. Three of them have completed 39 percent of their passes, with 11 interceptions and only two touchdowns. Coach Dick MacPherson will start freshman Greg Christodulu for the first time Saturday.
MacPherson was quoted this week as saying, "It's a sad state of affairs when you have to rely on a freshman in the quarterback situation. Even among the great ones, quarterbacks are coach-killers in their freshman year."
At quarterback, Maryland will hold a decisive advantage, even if Esiason is erratic. This week, probably more than any, Esiason would like to have a good game. Many of his relatives and friends have come from East Islip, N.Y., to watch him play.
"The team just can't keep waiting for me to start playing a full four-quarter game," Esiason said after Maryland's short workout in the Dome today. "So far, the good plays and the terrible plays have evened out. But I don't want to rely on that. If I get started in the first quarter, on the first play, we should take off."
Esiason is third in the ACC in total offense, leads the conference in passes attempted and is tied for second in passes completed. He has four touchdown passes, but five interceptions. Four turnovers -- two fumbles and two interceptions -- in a 39-31 loss to Penn State Sept. 11 left Esiason in a not-so-good mood.
Coach Bobby Ross said Esiason has been too critical of himself. "I don't think he's started poorly, other than Penn State," Ross said. "I think it has more to do with us beginning a lot of series with poor field position."
Maryland will start a freshman back for the first time, a move that may give the offense a new dimension. Rick Badanjek will start at fullback. John Nash, formerly the starter, will play tailback and fullback and also serve as a primary receiver.
"I visualize John as a sixth man, like in basketball," Ross said. "He has a lot of skills, he can do a lot of different things. We have been very pleased with the way he's played." Ross said he has not drawn up new plays because "the structure of our offense is such that it meets John's set of skills."
Like Syracuse, Virginia will have to get more out of its passing game if the Cavaliers (0-3) are to give George Welsh his first victory as their coach. They rank second in the ACC in rushing offense, but quarterbacks Wayne Schuchts and Gordon Eck have completed only 49 percent of their passes. The Cavaliers are last in scoring offense and scoring defense and have trouble with mobile quarterbacks.
That could prove troublesome since Tol Avery, N.C. State's quarterback, is a good runner and passer.
Navy, which couldn't stop Boston College quarterback Doug Flutie last week, will face Ben Bennett, the ACC's total offense leader. He has completed 66 percent of his attempts and is averaging nearly 300 yards per game passing.
Offensively, the Midshipmen (1-2) will have to get help from someone besides tailback Napoleon McCallum, who is one of the few skill position players to impress Coach Gary Tranquill in the last two weeks.
Florida A&M, with a big, experienced front line, could provide the same problems the Howard offense encountered in last week's 50-0 loss at South Carolina State.
Nationally, No. 14 West Virginia plays at No. 2 Pittsburgh (WJLA-TV-7 at 12:15); No. 6 Georgia is at Mississippi State in a Southeastern Conference game (WDVM-TV-9 at 3:30).