Army plays Navy Saturday in the annual service rivalry at Veterans Stadium, so what's new? The goat and the mule are here again, eyeing each other warily. You can cut the lore in the air with a knife and there's enough bragging along Broad Street to start a fight. If you collected the caps wheeling up and down and the cufflinks being bartered you could open a store.
It's all a little baroque, maybe, particularly since Army is heavily favored with its 8-2 record to Navy's 3-7. But that doesn't keep it from being an awfully good time, so let's get on with it.
When it comes time to play these antique games, it's tradition that few make predictions because numbers don't seem to mean much. There was Navy Coach Gary Tranquill on the floor of Veterans Stadium today, looking kind of small and cold in his big overcoat, and a little anxious on the eve of the academies' 86th football game.
He stared at the field, shoved his hands a little deeper in his pockets and said, "They always say throw out the records for this game. Well, that's the situation we're in. We want them thrown out."
That summed up Navy's position in this game: hopeful but unlikely perpetrators of an upset. The Midshipmen, who lead the series, 40-38-7, lost five of their games this season by four points or less and a battered offense now is under the direction of reserve quarterback Bob Misch, Bill Byrne having had his torn spleen removed.
Army, meanwhile, has a brilliant wishbone offense second in the nation in rushing, averaging 350.8 yards. The Cadets are going to the Peach Bowl against Illinois Dec. 31, but you wouldn't know it.
"Let's not talk about that yet," kicker Craig Stopa said. "Navy's what counts."
What it amounts to is whether Navy's passing, averaging 225 yards, and the remarkable Napoleon McCallum, No. 11 rusher in the country with 1,110 yards and playing his final game as a collegian, can keep Army's offense off the field. Navy's defense lost leading tackler Jim Dwyer, a linebacker who fractured his left leg Tuesday night in practice, and the Midshipmen have been poor tacklers all year.
The Cadets have proven big-play capability and average an intimidating 35.8 points a game. The wishbone that started as an interesting experiment last season, when the Cadets beat Navy, 28-11, is a polished gem under quarterback Rob Healy, who has run for 522 yards. "I just hope we can make him throw," said Navy linebacker Eric Fudge.
Army's scoring average is impressive in light of that fact that it's thrown 72 times all year. But the Cadets have used the forward pass effectively when they chose. Healy has a deep threat in receiver Scott Spellmon, and they teamed up on a 65-yard play once.
"It's the same offense," Army Coach Jim Young said. "But we've been able to get the bigger plays, so we're scoring more points."
Most of the paper seems stacked against Navy, but the Midshipmen may have something of an emotional edge. Prior to last year, Army had not won this game since 1977. The Navy feeling is that it took last year's game for granted and is due to reverse the lopsided loss, in which Army scored on three demoralizing, 16-play drives.
"For whatever reason, we came out flat," Tranquill said. "You could sense it halfway through the first quarter. They handled us physically, just lined up and hammered us. It's who hits harder on that given day. We just have to go out and smack them."
Not all the statistics go against Navy. A comparison of mutual opponents shows the teams might be much closer than the records indicate. Army's only two losses came against Notre Dame, 24-10, and Air Force, 45-7. Navy fared worse against the Fighting Irish, losing 41-17, but played Air Force to a near standoff in the first half before succumbing, 24-7. Overall, Army had a lighter schedule, playing four Division I-AA teams.
"I think we're actually pretty even," Tranquill said. "We've lost five games by 15 points. You can say two plays here or four plays there might have turned it around, maybe we'd be 7-3 instead of 3-7. But it doesn't work that way."
The Midshipmen seemed relaxed as they wandered Veterans Stadium today and waited to do their camera shots for CBS. But Army was much with them. Defensive tackle Mike Musser inspected the field and pointed to a ridge in the artificial turf on the five-yard line:
"Good place for a goal-line stand."