The oddsmakers and past performance give Navy the edge in Saturday's 83rd edition of the interservice rivalry with Army. Nobody on either side is taking the Midshipmen's 10-point favoritism seriously, however.
This is a game the Cadets badly want to win, for a variety of reasons that transcend mere tradition. Army has won only once in the last nine years, its 15 graduating seniors can look back at only last year's 3-3 tie and two one-sided defeats, and there is reason to believe this will be Coach Ed Cavanaugh's farewell to West Point.
Cavanaugh's contract is expiring and a combination of a 10-20-2 record and a locker room confrontation with Lt. Gen. Willard Scott, the academy superintendent, have put his future in considerable jeopardy, win or lose.
Cavanaugh interrupted Scott's critical postgame speech to the team after a 20-14 victory over Princeton Oct. 16 to remind Scott that the Cadets had, after all, won the game. Although both claim the conversation was blown out of proportion, Cavanaugh today sounded like a man resigned to the inevitable.
"I've been a coach for 30 years and I've always known there would be uncertainties," he said after putting the Cadets through a one-hour practice at Veterans Stadium. "I'm just trying to get ready for a football game and I can't concern myself with that part of it."
Cavanaugh said no win-or-go ultimatum had been received, and said, "I haven't talked to anyone about the situation at all."
"The decision will not be made on the basis of tomorrow's game, although the game will be a factor," said Carl Ullrich, West Point athletic director. "I will make a recommendation and the superintendent will make the decision. I would hope he would follow my recommendation; otherwise, what am I doing here?"
Asked whether the team was going to try to win one for its coach, punting star Joe Sartiano said, "We want to win, not for one person, but for the whole program. I'll say this, my freshman year we were being blown out by some schools and you can tell the difference now. Coach Cavanaugh has made a big change here. Now we go into every game knowing we can win."
"There are a lot of seniors who want to go out beating Navy," said halfback Gerald Walker. "We're really serious about it. I definitely want to win, because this is the fourth year I've played them and I don't want to leave without ever winning."
Walker, whose fumbles hurt Army's chances the last two years, had a shoulder separated in the Cadets' second game, against Lafayette, and the injury has been aggravated several times since. After running for 1,053 yards last year, Walker needed only 726 this fall to top Glenn Davis' academy record of 2,957. With the injury, Walker has played only parts of five games and has gained only 404 yards. He is to have surgery after Christmas, but he is playing because, without him, Army's rushing offense is virtually nonexistent.
"If I'm hit on it or fall on it the wrong way, there will be a lot of pain," Walker said. "But it'll be gone by the next play. The three-week break has helped me. I should go the distance tomorrow. This is my last game and I'll do everything I can to help Army win. If I do that, I'll feel a lot better. I'll feel better, anyway, I guess, without having to worry about waking up the next day with my arm in a sling."
A year ago, when television first mandated the three-week wait to play this game, Army was able to get some of its injured players healthy, while Navy grew stale and never could get going.
This time the Midshipmen have benefited, and five injured starters will be back: defensive backs Eric Wallace, Brian Cianella and Jon Ross, linebacker Carl Wagner and tight end Mark Stevens.
Quarterback Tom Tarquinio, whose shoulder was bruised at South Carolina Nov. 13, is about 85 percent recovered. But because of missed practice time and Coach Gary Tranquill's desire for more passing, sophomore Ricky Williamson will make his first start.
Rich Clouse, nominally a tailback, will make a one-time appearance at fullback, and it can be assumed Williamson will be throwing often to Clouse and tailback Napoleon McCallum.
That will mean a direct assault on Army's strength, because the Cadets' secondary has been outstanding and Cavanaugh, on occasion, has used seven defensive backs in passing situations.
Eight graduates of Washington-area high schools will be starting the game. In Navy's lineup will be middle guard George Herlong of Bishop Ireton, defensive end Hamp Oberle of Annandale, rover Cianella of Langley and safety Kurt Dixon of Herndon.
Starting for the Cadets will be offensive tackle Karl Heineman of Seneca Valley, offensive guard Church Matthews of St. Alban's, defensive tackle Darryl Williams of Mount Vernon and punter Sartiano of Marshall.