When Virginia lost by four points each to Navy and James Madison to open the 1982 season, Coach George Welsh's first year here was already down the drain. The Cavaliers, injured physically and distraught, finished 2-9, worse than any team Welsh had endured in making Naval Academy football respectable again.

"It (the first two losses) hurt us psychologically," Welsh said today. "I didn't realize it at the time. But it affected us, maybe because we have lost (for) so long."

In the third game last season, Virginia fell apart against Duke. Ben Bennett, the Blue Devils' superb quarterback, found the Cavaliers easy pickings. The final score was 51-17, Bennett completing 21 of 30 passes for 291 yards and three touchdowns before reserves accounted for Duke's final three scores.

Saturday night, Virginia opens its season at home in an Atlantic Coast Conference game against Duke, with Bennett returning for a senior season in which Duke publicists already are campaigning hard for him to win the Heisman Trophy. Welsh would like to win, but he candidly says:

"I don't know if we can handle Bennett right now with our football team. But we have 10 more games, and I think we can win some more games this year if we don't get too discouraged."

It is easy for football players at Virginia to get discouraged: the two victories last season equaled or surpassed the number of games won in five of the seven previous seasons; there have been only two winnings seasons in the past 30, compared to eight in which the Cavaliers won one or no games.

So, the 1983 goal for this team is hardly a national championship.

"We've had two good recruiting classes," Welsh said. "It's important to win a couple more games this year to show that we're making progress."

If the two-a-day practices are any indication, the Cavaliers are progressing.

"We're more cohesive, there's more zip around," Welsh said. "I'm not sure about our execution, but the general tenor of things is better."

Welsh will find out about the execution on Saturday night.

The secondary is experienced, including cornerback Ray Daly, from St. John's High School in Washington and a starter on Navy's 1981 Liberty Bowl team. Welsh plans to start either Howard Lewis or William Frazier, both of whom have started, at the other cornerback, with returning starter Rich Riccardi at strong safety and letterman Bart Farinholt at free safety.

How will this secondary fare against Bennett?

Welsh is uncertain. "Against ourselves, we're doing pretty well," he said. "But we don't have that type of quarterback."

Quarterback could be a problem Saturday if starter Wayne Schuchts is injured.

Mike Eck, who had been contending for the No. 1 quarterback job with Schuchts, suffered a separated shoulder in a scrimmage last week and Welsh says he wants to hold him out until the following week's game against Navy in Annapolis. The coach says he will not decide on a backup until after a couple more days of practice.

His choices are Doug Porter, a junior who is the only other quarterback with varsity experience, and freshmen Dan Majkowski and Kevin Ferguson. Porter has not seen extensive practice time since the team's first scrimmage.

But any quarterback's biggest chore against Duke could be handing off and pitching out to some young running backs who are touted as being as talented as any in the ACC.

"We have a lot of backs, and we like what we see of them," said Welsh. "But they need an offensive line. We'll find out."