This season is shaping up as one of the most bizarre in Naval Academy football history.
Although outscored, 149-14, in its first four games and still plagued by injuries to key personnel, the Midshipmen actually expect to beat a good Air Force team in Colorado Springs tomorrow afternoon.
This newfound determination and confidence can be traced to an awakening by the offense and continued improvement by the defense in last week's game against North Carolina, particularly during the second half, when with eight minutes to go, Navy trailed by only six points.
Yet, realistically speaking, tomorrow's contest will be a tough challenge for the Mids. Navy has not beaten the Falcons since halfback Eddie Meyer's great year in 1981 when Air Force lost, 30-13.
The game will be played in front of 55,000 home-team fans. The Mids must make a quick adjustment to the high altitude, and the Air Force has had the advantage of scouting coach George Chaump's I-bone offense that features three potential running backs and an unbalanced line. This offensive set was a radical change from what Navy previously was using and for good reason with three quarterbacks and the two best runners out with injuries.
The contributions of Jason Van Matre at quarterback should not be underestimated. A threat to pass or run, he is also an outstanding leader on the field who helps to bring out the best in newcomers Cleavon Smith, Rob Edwards, Lionel Hines, Jimmy Screen, Jeff Williams and Mike Jefferson.
On defense, the emergence of Javier Zuluaga at linebacker to strengthen an ever-improving defensive alignment has been another encouraging development for the Mids, as Chad Chatlos and Chris Hart continue to shine in the secondary.
Indicative of the overall mental outlook and determination of this team are the comments of Steve Sloane, a 5-foot-11, 196-pound senior quarterback from Tampa, Fla.
Although never No. 2 or 3 on the depth chart, Sloane has been out there on the Middies' practice field for nearly four years, dodging serious injury, following instruction, rarely getting into a game, but lending a spirit to the proceedings that personify the Navy football player.
He recently said, "We're together now, it's a different team and somebody is going to fall. It may as well be Air Force."
It would be difficult to imagine a team experiencing more adversity than this year's Middies football squad. The players brought a lot on themselves with foolish mistakes that are being corrected, but little can be done with year-ending injuries. They believe that it can be turned around.
The Air Force continues to dominate the run for the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy, having won it seven of the last 10 years and the last three in a row. In addition, it won the last two Liberty Bowl games with convincing victories over Ohio State and Mississippi State.
Running out of the wishbone offense, its two halfbacks, Obasi Onudha and Wayne Young, will take handoffs from quarterback Jarvis Baker. Its entire offensive line graduated last spring, and size has been a problem up front.
Rice, Wyoming, New Mexico and Texas have fallen to the Falcons, with Hawaii edging them early in the season, 6-3.
Meanwhile, there has been some good football news at Navy recently. The lightweight football team traveled to Philadelphia last week and defeated Pennsylvania, 31-0.