After four consecutive wins at home, the Navy football team leaves today for Louisville, Ky., and an afternoon game tomorrow with the tough Louisville Cardinals.
In 113 years of football at the Academy, the 4-2 record this early in the season by Coach George Chaump's charges is the best start since George Welsh's last year at the helm in 1981, which ended with a wild Liberty Bowl loss to Ohio State, 31-28.
Many observers consider the 28-24 Navy victory over the Air Force Academy two weeks ago as the "turnaround" game of the 1993 season.
As significant and as exciting as that game was on Oct. 9, I think the game two weeks earlier at home against Bowling Green, the defending champions of the Mid-American Conference, was the springboard to a successful season.
Anyone who has watched this season closely has noticed that Bowling Green has continued to march to its third consecutive league championship and another bowl bid with the thorough trouncings of Toledo, Ohio and Akron, the latter last Saturday, 49-7. All are Division I-A schools.
Falcons coach Gary Blackney did not expect to get out of Annapolis with an unaccustomed defeat. A determined come-from-behind effort by the Mids earned the win.
Can any Navy supporter who was there for the Bowling Green game forget 20 completions by Jim Kubiak in 34 pass attempts, or Brad Stramanak's plunge into the end zone in the fourth quarter, or Chris Hart's great interception to seal the win near the end?
The Louisville story is an interesting one and centers around its coach, Howard Schnellenberger, recognized as one of the five best coaches in the nation. He left his national champion Miami team in 1985, turned down several pro offers, and accepted the challenge to attempt to rebuild a sorry program at Louisville.
By 1990 his team went 8-3 and beat Alabama in the Fiesta Bowl. Players are graduating, a new 50,000-plus stadium is in the works on campus and his schedule features Texas, Arizona State and Pittsburgh, whom the Cardinals have beaten this year. Tennessee and Texas A&M; come later.
Still, Louisville is not infallible, as proven last week when it took a sensational air show by its pro quarterback prospect, Jeff Brohm, and the receiving of halfback Ralph Hawkins in the second half, to erase a 24-9 halftime deficit and beat Southern Mississippi (1-6), 35-27. USA Today has ranked the Cardinals 20th in the nation. Their only loss was at 18th-ranked West Virginia, 36-34.
In assessing the Mids' chances tomorrow, Chaump said, "We're going to have to play mistake-free football if we are to stand a chance."
Fourteen turnovers in their past three games must not be repeated. An effective running game must emerge to go with the excellent passing attack or else the Mids will face six and seven defenders covering the receivers. And, unsportsmanlike penalties are not Navy football. They survived such penalties against Colgate, but that would be unlikely against Louisville.
But all kinds of good things happened last week to further Navy's overall picture.
Backup quarterback Tony Solliday hit 10 of 13 passes for 89 yards and an 8.9 average while replacing shaken-up Kubiak. The junior from Mission Viejo, Calif., moved smoothly into the pocket and demonstrated an impressive release. Split end Damon Dixon, another Californian, added to his stats, having caught 32 passes in six games for 360 yards.
On defense, sophomore back Andy Thompson from Ferndale, Wash., in his first start was named to the ECAC Division I-A All-East weekly honor roll along with Kubiak. He had 12 tackles, an interception and blocked a punt that led to a touchdown.
It certainly appears that Navy football has turned the corner. It would be helpful if a lesser I-A team were on the schedule tomorrow, but just think of the outcome with a Navy upset, or even a closely played game.
In any event, it's on into the den of the Cardinals tomorrow and up to Philadelphia for the annual battle with Notre Dame next week. If anything, it will be a growing experience.