The local college football season had been pretty much devoid of meaningful rivalries before today, when Maryland, Virginia and the Naval Academy will play three of their traditional antagonists.
In College Park at noon, Maryland meets a North Carolina team the Terrapins have dominated in the 3 1/2-year tenure of Maryland Coach Bobby Ross. The big news this year is that unranked Maryland, on a three-game winning streak, is favored to win by two touchdowns.
Navy hasn't beaten Notre Dame since 1963, when Roger Staubach quarterbacked the Midshipmen. But it's not difficult to feel the nervousness in South Bend, where Notre Dame is worrying about Irish quarterback Steve Beuerlein, its emotional state after a rout of Southern California, and a Navy team coming off an upset of Pitt. The Midshipmen and Irish begin at approximately 3:30 in a nationally televised game (WJLA-TV-7).
If Virginia expects to be considered for a decent bowl game bid, it needs to beat West Virginia this afternoon in Charlottesville.
But the game with the most intrigue appears to be Notre Dame-Navy. The Fighting Irish have won two straight to even their record at 3-3, but they may have a hard time getting inspired for Navy after an emotional 37-3 victory over the Trojans last week. The tension is greater because Beuerlein, who suffered a bruised right shoulder scoring on a six-yard run against USC, didn't practice much this week and has struggled through some of the season with a sore arm.
Notre Dame's quarterback situation has somewhat overshadowed the real focal point of today's game: Napoleon McCallum versus Allen Pinkett. This game boasts two Heisman Trophy candidates, school record breakers and game breakers, who are the depth and breadth of their teams. The two present a contrast in style.
Pinkett is a 5-foot-9, scatback-style runner, McCallum a rangy, 6-2 strider who specializes in off-tackle runs and the sweep. Pinkett, the former Park View High School star from Sterling, Va., is Notre Dame's all-time career leading rusher and has gained more than 100 yards in the last three games. He has carried the ball 154 times for 635 yards (14th in the nation).
McCallum, owner of virtually every Navy rushing record, is the 11th-ranked runner in the nation with 785 yards on 173 carries. He also is third in the country in all-purpose rushing, with 191.1 yards per game, and is chasing Darrin Nelson's NCAA record for all-purpose yardage. He also is sixth in scoring, with 11 touchdowns, an average of 9.4 points per game.
It's been awhile since a Maryland-North Carolina game didn't figure to be close. But the Tar Heels haven't beaten a quality team this season, and Carolina hasn't beaten Maryland and Clemson in the same season since 1980. After a disappointing 5-5-1 record last year, UNC Coach Dick Crum went to a passing offense and a defense similar to Maryland's wide-tackle six (eight men on the line of scrimmage sometimes). But the results haven't been spectacular. Georgia Tech shut out the Tar Heels, 31-0.
Maryland's Ross figures a little differently, however. "I know some people won't listen to this, but we think this could very well be the best North Carolina team we've faced in the three seasons I've been here," he said. "They're throwing the ball quite a bit more and they've got as much multiplicity as any team we've played in four years."
Since the season began, the Tar Heels have found a new weapon in freshman tailback Derrick Fenner, 6 feet 4, 218 pounds from Oxon Hill, Md. "By golly, he's become a find," Ross said, comparing Fenner to Ethan Horton, a former Tar Heels tailback now in the NFL.
Maryland has had a problem sustaining excellence for more than one half. And if that's the case again today, the Terrapins will be in trouble in more ways than one. A victory, however, will keep Maryland in the chase for a Fiesta Bowl bid.
Virginia (4-3) also is trying to regroup, playing host to West Virginia (4-2-1) at Scott Stadium (8 p.m.). The Cavaliers barely beat struggling Wake Forest last week, 20-18, but they took what they could get after losing three of their previous four.
"It's a big game for both of us," Virginia Coach George Welsh said. "We both have four wins and we both need at least six for winning seasons. So it will go a long way to determining who's going to get six or seven."
Welsh made a couple of personnel changes to try to bolster a Cavaliers offense that has been puzzled by injuries and its inability to generate second-half points (only 47 in the second half this season).
The Cavaliers are suffering a slight depth problem at wide receiver, where last season's ACC rookie of the year John Ford has been redshirted with a hip injury. Tight end Geno Zimmerlink, the leading receiver, was moved to his old position of split end for Wake but did not have any receptions.
Another worry for Virginia is its inconsistent passing game. Against Wake, quarterback Don Majkowski completed just four of 11 passes for 62 yards. West Virginia's pass defense, which has most of its secondary returning, was unkind to him last year, allowing just three completions in 17 attempts.
"We probably have to throw more unless something unusual happens, we get some long runs or something," Welsh said. "I think we need a decent percentage and 150 yards or so if we're going to win."