For area college football teams, especially Navy, Maryland and Howard, this is a day that could set the tone for the remainder of the season.
Navy hopes to use the momentum it gained from beating West Virginia on the road last week against Air Force at Redskins Stadium before a crowd expected to reach 50,000. An upset would give the Midshipmen (2-3) a leg up in the Commander-In-Chief's Trophy competition, which Air Force (3-1) has won the past two years and dominated since 1989.
The Terrapins visit Atlantic Coast Conference rival Wake Forest, a team whose style and goals are similar to theirs. Both are 3-1, feature solid ground attacks and want to make this a breakout season that ends in a bowl game. As Coach Ron Vanderlinden reminds eager fans, Maryland has beaten one ACC team (Duke twice) in his two seasons.
Howard (2-2, 1-1) hosts powerful Florida A&M in one of its toughest Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference games. The Rattlers (3-2, 3-0) routed Howard last season, 69-41, and have scored 66 and 76 points in their past two games.
In other action involving local teams, Virginia (3-2) hosts winless Duke and fifth-ranked Virginia Tech (4-0) opens its Big East Conference schedule at Rutgers.
Last week, the Midshipmen caught West Virginia without standout quarterback Marc Bulger, sidelined with a broken finger. Air Force starting quarterback Cale Bonds is suffering from a sprained ankle, and wide receiver Matt Farmer said earlier in the week that Mike Thiessen likely will run the offense today.
Against San Diego State last week, Thiessen came off the bench and rushed for 138 yards and two touchdowns in a 23-22 victory. Halfback Scott McKay also is effective in the triple-option offense with 285 yards on 45 carries.
The Midshipmen are led by quarterback Brian Broadwater (508 yards rushing and 477 passing), fullback Raheem Lambert (362 yards) and slotback Dre Brittingham (190 yards). Broadwater has accounted for eight touchdowns.
Like Maryland, the Demon Deacons won three games last season. But veterans such as 220-pound tailback Morgan Kane have them off to their best start in 12 years. The school has been more patient than most might be with Coach Jim Caldwell, whose record in six-plus seasons is 20-50.
"Jim sold them on continuity, really building a program," said Vanderlinden. "I admire them for doing that--and they're being rewarded."
The Terrapins lead the nation in kickoff returns with an average of 40 yards and are second to Southern California in turnover margin at plus-2.25 per game. Kickoff returner Lewis Sanders, who also has intercepted four passes and recovered two fumbles from his left cornerback position, seems almost fully recovered from a groin pull suffered during practice Tuesday.
The status of defensive end Peter Timmins, whose shoulder popped out of place during Tuesday's workout, is less certain. Vanderlinden said he will play, but added that redshirt sophomore Matt Murphy might start.
Virginia (2-1 in the ACC) figures to rebound from last week's embarrassing loss at home to Virginia Tech.
The Cavaliers have defeated the Blue Devils five consecutive times. "But playing a team like Duke is dangerous," said tackle Brad Barnes, "because they have nothing to lose. It will make their season to beat Virginia. . . . I hope people aren't still wallowing around with their heads down about [the loss to Virginia Tech] because there's nothing we can do about it."
Standout linebacker Yubrenal Isabelle probably will miss his second straight game because of the death of his mother. Defensive backs Antwan Harris and Dwayne Stukes are questionable with leg injuries. Virginia Tech completed several long passes last week, two against cornerback Tim Spruill.
"Once we play our techniques right," Spruill said, "there'll be fewer deep balls."
Howard's major problem today will be with the part of Florida A&M's pass offense called RAC, for Run After Catch. Division I-AA all-American junior Jacquay Nunnally (37 catches, 393 yards, 4 touchdowns) is the best of the receivers.
"We're going to have to turn them back," Howard Coach Steve Wilson said. "Those RAC boys are for real.
The Bison will try to counter that explosive offense with a time-consuming ground game featuring Jermaine Hutchinson (353 yards, eight touchdowns) and David Johnson (216 yards). A bye last week gave Howard quarterback Bobby Townsend (63-for-157 passing for 1,055 yards) a chance to recover from hand and ankle injuries. He has thrown four touchdown passes but has been intercepted six times.
Rutgers quarterback Mike McMahon leads the Big East in passing with an average of 230.5 yards, but the Hokies have the nation's top-ranked defense.
"I think I've spent the entire morning trying to figure how to win the coin toss so we can kick off and keep their defense off the field," Rutgers Coach Terry Shea joked earlier in the week.
Staff writer Angie Watts and special correspondents Jeff Seidel, Chris Nehls and Rich Scherr contributed to this report.