Maryland will try to break a five-game home losing streak to West Virginia tonight at sold-out Byrd Stadium, and Virginia opens its Atlantic Coast Conference season in Atlanta against Georgia Tech. But the most critical game of the day for area college football teams could take place in the Midwest where the Naval Academy plays Indiana of the Big Ten.
When a team has thrown six interceptions, been penalized 18 times for 155 yards and lost to Division I-AA Delaware to drop to 0-2 as the Midshipmen have, something has to give. Navy Coach Gary Tranquill's answer is to try to shake up the Midshipmen by taking a few more chances against the Hoosiers in Bloomington.
The Midshipmen plan to display a more open offense against an Indiana team that last week broke the longest losing streak in the nation at 16 games with a 41-28 victory over Louisville. Too much recklessness by Navy might be foolhardy, but at least it might be better than going down the way it did to Delaware last week, 16-13.
Only tailback Napoleon McCallum has lived up to the expectations of Navy's offense, rushing for 230 yards and three touchdowns in two games, and the Midshipmen have to do something to take the burden off him. A key figure will be quarterback Bill Byrne, who has proven big-play capability.
"It's been the same thing," Tranquill said. "The offense is not making the big plays. They've been playing with caution instead of throwing caution to the wind . . . We can't get any continuity going. It's not just the timing, it's the way it makes you feel. We get a penalty and the whole sideline goes down. We start thinking, 'Oh my goodness, it's third and long again.' "
Navy's defense, which so far has been dependable, will be tested by Indiana quarterback Steve Bradley, who, with the loss of about 30 pounds, has become a rushing threat as well as a dangerous passer. The 6-foot-3, 212-pound senior threw for 274 yards and a touchdown against Louisville and rushed for 101 yards, including a 64-yard score. The Hoosiers totaled 623 yards in offense, best in the nation.
Virginia's 1 p.m. meeting with Georgia Tech at Grant Field in Atlanta is shaping up as a meeting between the Cavaliers' experienced and highly regarded offense and the Yellow Jackets' equally experienced, miserly defense.
Virginia's backfield, ranked 17th in rushing yards last year, is deeper than ever, particularly with the return of fullback Antonio Rice from a dislocated shoulder. Although he will not start, he will be available to sub for Keith Vanderbeek and Kevin Morgan.
Morgan and tailbacks Howard Petty and Barry Word combined for four touchdowns in last week's 40-15 victory over VMI, but the Cavaliers also benefitted from five turnovers from the Keydets. Georgia Tech is not likely to afford them much luxury. The Yellow Jackets held North Carolina State to under 100 yards rushing in last week's 28-18 victory.
"They run their offense against anybody," Georgia Tech Coach Bill Curry said. "I think they might try to hammer us with the running game, grind it out. But they'll probably try to bomb us, too."
Virginia quarterback Don Majkowski, who missed much of preseason practice with a hip strain, will attempt to open up a passing game that was good for only 125 yards against VMI. The Cavaliers still are without deep threat John Ford, sidelined with calcium deposits in a knee, which means that tight end Geno Zimmerlink probably will figure prominently, as will Quanah Bullock, starting in Ford's place.
Last year's meeting ended in a tie, the first time in seven meetings Virginia had not beaten Georgia Tech.
The Terrapins say they are ready to break loose offensively. Coach Bobby Ross said quarterback Stan Gelbaugh, who has completed 39 percent of his passes (with several dropped passes) through the first two games, has had a great week of practice. Should the Maryland offense hit stride, West Virginia would be in trouble.
West Virginia has several key players injured, which is why Coach Don Nehlen said earlier this week, "In order for us to even come close, we ought to be at full strength. We ought to be playing them in a month or so, not now."
Nehlen went on to say that he has voted for Ross the last two years as national coach of the year. "Maryland just keeps getting better and better," Nehlen said.
Maryland is getting better. The defense will be hurt by the absence of guard Neal Sampson, who will miss one game with a slightly sprained knee. But Bob Arnold and former starter Tommy Parker should keep Maryland's defense as sharp as it has been the last two weeks.
One of Ross' concerns is the athletic ability of quarterback John Talley, 6-6, 220 pounds, who allows West Virginia to run a few option plays. "He can beat you with the big play in a scramble situation," Ross said. "West Virginia has hurt us before with the big play. We've got to keep that element out of the game."
Nationally, Grambling State Coach Eddie Robinson can come within one game of Bear Bryant's 315-game victory total with a win at N.C. Central.