Oct. 30, 2014
Joe Schmidt, a bone-jarring 6-foot-1, 235-pound linebacker for the University of Notre Dame, understands the honor that runs deep in the storied football series between Notre Dame and Navy.
"Understanding the history behind this series is really important," Schmidt said. "Navy kept Notre Dame afloat during the second World War. We really owe what Notre Dame is today in part to the Naval Academy sending us midshipmen back in the day. I think that's extremely important to know. It's a special rivalry that's about more than just football."
Schmidt got a truer understanding of what Navy football is all about the first time he played against the Midshipmen in 2012, when he took a shot under the chin.
Playing special teams for the Fighting Irish in that 2012 game played at Aviva Stadium in Dublin, Ireland, Schmidt learned that playing Navy means bell-to-bell action, 15 rounds of fury.
"I remember thinking to myself, `Wow, these guys never quit on plays,'" Schmidt said. "They're always giving 100 percent effort. Even if they miss a block, they'll come back around and get you again. They never stop."
Schmidt and the Irish once again will line up for an honor game against Navy on Saturday. Kickoff is set for 8:07 p.m. EDT at FedEx Field in Landover, Maryland. The Irish (6-1) play the Midshipmen (4-4) for the 88th consecutive time, making it the longest continuous intersectional rivalry in the country. Notre Dame leads the series, which has been played every season since 1927, 74-12-1.
When Schmidt played against Navy in 2013, he found out his bare-knuckled experience against Navy from the previous season was the norm.
"The next year, it was the same thing," Schmidt said about Navy's intensity and fight. "I played a little defense, and I understood. Trust me, I understood. These guys are always in the right position, they're always firing out. They're always giving their best effort.
"That play, that effort, it's something that's unique to Navy, because of the kind of kid that they attract, and the kind of man that they build."
Christian Lombard, a 6-5, 311-pound offensive lineman for the Irish, also knows Navy doesn't shy away from a fight.
"There was one play in particular where Theo Riddick absolutely ran over one of their linebackers, and the linebacker was down for a second. You could tell he got his bell rung, but he just popped up right after that and was right back in the game. That just speaks to their toughness and their willingness to keep playing and brush off those kinds of hits.
"Those guys just never quit. You can be ahead by a lot, and you'll hear them talking to their guys on defense. It will be third and short, and they'll be saying, 'Let's get this stop. Let's get our boys back out here on offense.' They play the game the right way."
Schmidt loves mixing it up on the field against Navy.
"Their players are all incredibly tough, incredibly disciplined guys, high-character guys," Schmidt said. "They're ready to provide the ultimate service and sacrifice for our country, so we have the utmost respect their program, and for everything they do for our country, and everything they do during their college experience."
What Schmidt admires in particular about playing Navy is the fact the Midshipmen don't take a down off.
"They're a team that will never quit, and I love that," Schmidt said. "I respect that. I love playing someone like that. I like that kind of challenge.
"It's really a man's game the entire time. It's a fight. You know they're going to be throwing punches as long as they possibly can, and that's exciting for me. It's really a tough, hard-nosed football game every time we play them. They always play us extremely tough."
Schmidt said the Irish find out the measure of their own toughness by playing Navy.
"I think you find something out about yourself against Navy. You find something out about your team, about how tough you are, if you can play disciplined, if you can play hard-nosed football, and, honestly, if you can get punched in the mouth, because that's what they're going to do.
"I'm confident that on Saturday night they're going to run some plays and they're going to get you under the chin. That's what Navy's good at. I'm really looking forward to that--going man versus man and gauging that."
Lombard said Navy has a unique program that represents the principles that college football values. He said the Irish know better than to take a Navy team lightly. The Midshipmen may not have the height and weight numbers comparable to other Division I teams, but the heart they bring to the fight is beyond quantifying.
"Going into some weeks it's natural for some guys to say, `OK, we're going to beat them.' When you get into the Navy game, right away you're saying, 'Geez, these guys are the real deal,'" Lombard said. "It's one of those games where it's going to be four quarters. You have to go into the game knowing that, and you have to prepare for that. "I would say from the standpoint of endurance, Navy will give us one of the best games we'll get from an opponent. I know from experience there'll be a 14-play drive. Sometimes you can see the look in the eyes of the players from the other team, and you can tell they're sucking air. With Navy, they're like, 'Let's go. Next play.' They're as ready as we are to get the next play going. They're in as good of shape as anyone we play."
Lombard said the Irish are eager about the chance to take on a respected rival.
"This is a big game for both teams," Lombard said. "This is a game that means a lot to both teams. It's always like that. My first start, in 2012, was against Navy. That was a real wake-up call. It was like, these guys are serious. It was a good game to be broken into. They brought it, and we know they'll bring it on Saturday."
-- By Curt Rallo, special correspondent