Call them the Buckshot Brigade, because none of them is very big and they all try to drop rival ballcarriers at the same time, preferably while traveling at maximum speed. And so far this patchwork crew of walk-ons and ex-quarterbacks, of former running backs and inexperienced reserves, has been deadly effective. According to the NCAA statistics, Navy has the best defensive unit in college football.
The latest victim was William and Mary, which lost 9-0 last Saturday at Annapolis. It was Navy's sixth straight victory, and the third shutout. The last time the Middies got this far into a season without a loss was in 1960, when a bumblebee of a halfback named Joe Bellino was buzzing his way toward the Heisman Trophy. And a Navy team has not had this many shutouts in a season since 1955. Since then, other people's offenses have fattened their statistics on the Middies. In the last 10 years, Navy has had nine losing seasons and given up an average of more than 24 points a game.
Even Coach George Welsh, who quarterbacked that 1955 team, admits he is mystified as to why his young and relatively undersized club has suddenly become such a monster on defense. "It must be chemistry," he finally decided the day before the William and Mary game. "There are no superstars. Just 11 guys working well together as a unit and always giving 110%." Then he added, "And to be realistic, the schedule hasn't hurt us any."
Only once in the dismal last decade has Navy advanced this far into a season without having been badly mauled by the likes of Michigan, Penn State or Texas. The lone exception was 1975, when Navy went 7-4. Because Navy doesn't draw well at home, it has had to play a majority of its games on the road. "What we need is 5,000 more hard-core fans," Welsh says. "If we had a better following, we could play more at home, and we'd win more. Traveling the way we do wears a team down." Indeed, last season Navy was 5-1 at home, 0-5 away.
In one respect, this season has been no different, because Navy's first four games were on the road. But there were no Top-20 teams among those four opponents, only Virginia, which the Middies beat 32-0, Connecticut (30-0), Boston College (19-8) and Air Force (37-8).
The schedule has given Welsh, who juggled and rejuggled his defense during workouts last spring, time to find its weaknesses and to correct them. The main problem was the secondary, where only Gregg Milo, the 197-pound junior rover, was a returning starter. "You're the leader," Welsh told him. Milo found himself leading Safety Fred Heitzel, last year's No. 3 quarterback, Cornerback Bob Wilson, a converted running back, and Chuck Zingler, a reserve who had not played enough to earn a letter.
Wilson, 6'1" and 190 pounds, was a walk-on who, like Defensive Ends Charlie Thornton (6', 202) and Mark Stephens (6', 210) and Middle Guard A. B. Miller (6'1", 219), had to beg the plebe coach in 1975 to give him a tryout.
"He told me to go away," Wilson says, "but I wouldn't. Finally he gave me a uniform. He didn't expect me to do anything with it. He said I was too small and too slow. The guy is gone now, but I guess I've spent the last four years proving he was wrong." Another plebe coach told Thornton, Stephens and Miller pretty much the same thing, but they too persisted.
Welsh is happy that his four walk-on defensemen were so stubborn. "We don't recruit that many blue-chippers," he says. "We need people like them to surprise us every year."
Welsh has not been surprised by his offense. He knew Navy could score, by land or by air or by Bob Tata, a mite at 5'6" and 152 pounds, but a mighty large threat when he swings his right leg anywhere inside the 40-yard line. Tata is the second-leading scorer in Navy history—142 points to Bellino's 198—and holds or has equaled seven Middie kicking records. That's not bad for a guy who showed up at the Academy almost by accident.
"I signed a letter of intent to go to William and Mary," says Tata. "I'd always watched the Army-Navy games on TV, but I just thought Army got up a team, Navy got up a team, and they played. Then Navy recruited me. I thought, 'You mean I can play on TV, and I can get paid to go to school? Where do I sign?' "
A Tata miss, the 12th in 38 career field-goal attempts, occurred in the first half against William and Mary, which had come into the game at least a two-touchdown underdog. The week before, in its first home game this season, Navy had romped over Duke 31-8 to gain the No. 17 ranking in the AP poll. But William and Mary, with a 4-1-1 record, was not overawed.
"For them we're the big game on their schedule, and they're always up for us," Welsh said before the game. "And this is exam week at the Academy and the kids are tired. Traditionally it's been a poor week for Navy football."
Tradition was maintained. William and Mary, led by Quarterback Tom Rozantz and a platoon of solid runners, hammered away at the Middies, who have not been behind in a game this season. "I want to find out how they react when they are behind," Welsh had said.
Late in the second quarter he almost found out. From the Navy 10, Rozantz lofted a pass that Ed Schiefelbein caught two yards deep in the end zone for an apparent score. But the officials had spied an ineligible receiver downfield and called the touchdown back. The William and Mary threat died a few moments later with a missed field-goal attempt. Navy then drove down to the Indian 30, and Tata failed to convert a 46-yarder into the wind.
Split End Phil McConkey, Navy's only All-America candidate, gave Tata another chance in the third quarter. Last year McConkey led Navy receivers with 34 catches for 596 yards and four touchdowns, and he was No. 3 in the country in punt returns with a 13.5 average. Midway through the third period, McConkey fielded a punt at his 39, spun out of the arms of one tackier, fell in behind a wall of blockers and raced 46 yards to the William and Mary 15. Four plays later Tata drilled home a 27-yarder to put Navy ahead 3-0. In the fourth quarter, Navy's attack finally shook off its exam blues and began to move. Mostly it was Steve Callahan, a speedster who has given Navy an outside threat, who exploited the tiring William and Mary defense. Four Callahan runs picked up 23 yards, and a surprise Callahan pass, a 16-yard toss to Tight End Curt Gainer, brought the ball to the William and Mary 33.
"Thirty-five," Quarterback Bob Leszczynski called in the Navy huddle. This play is a dive with a cutback by Fullback Larry Klawinski, who found a crack on the right side, followed blocks by McConkey and Gainer, spun away from one tackier at the five and carried William and Mary's Paul Tyner into the end zone with him. A Navy try for a two-point conversion failed, and the score remained 9-0 until the final gun.
Any chance William and Mary had ended when Middie punter Art Ohanian dropped a 50-yard kick dead on the Indian five with 1:00 left to play. With eight seconds remaining, Zingler got his third interception of the day.
And now it is time for Navy to get serious. The big boys are coming in for a crack at the No. 1 defense. It will be Pitt this Saturday, followed by Notre Dame, Syracuse, Florida State and Army.
"Now," said Tata, "I guess we'll find out if we are just a flash in the pan."