Nov. 11, 2005
By Alan Wasielewski
The Notre Dame - Navy series represents what college football is all about - tradition. The two teams have met every season since 1927, making this the longest continuous intersectional rivalry in the country.
Most of the media stories and web page updates this week have focused on one number - 41. The Irish have won 41 consecutive games against the Midshipmen, which is an NCAA Division IA record.
What college football fans and analysts must realize, however, is that this series' tradition is based on far more than the competition, or outcome, on the field.
Notre Dame's Navy Reserve Officer Training Corp kept the University running during World War II. During the conflict, Notre Dame's civilian undergraduate numbers fell to just 250 while an estimated 12,000 Navy officers completed their training on campus. In addition to helping the war effort, the Navy's Midshipmen School and V-12 program helped Notre Dame modernize its campus and provide a strong foundation for the University that exists today under the Golden Dome.
Navy will quite possibly never disappear from Notre Dame's schedule, nor should it. This series reflects the tradition of college football. Granted, the string of games have been one-sided since Heisman Trophy winner Roger Staubach led fourth-ranked Navy to a 35-14 victory in 1963, but the Irish have received much more out of the series than just 41 consecutive victories.
As a national university, Notre Dame is proud to have alumni spread across all 50 states and the Navy series allows the Irish to visit key sections of the country on a rotating basis. Notre Dame and Navy have met in New Jersey, Baltimore, Chicago, Cleveland, Orlando, Philadelphia and Maryland, all of which have been Navy `home' games because of the limited capacity (34,000) of Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis.
In addition, most Irish fans remember that Navy and Notre Dame met in Dublin, Ireland, for a regular-season game in 1996.
The 41-game win streak has never affected Navy's motivation. There have been a fair share of blow out victories by Notre Dame during the streak, but lately the Midshipmen have more than held their own.
2003 - Notre Dame squeaks out a 27-24 victory when current senior kicker D.J. Fitzpatrick kicks a 40-yard field goal as time expires - a kick that is partially blocked by a Navy defender.
2002 - Ninth-ranked Notre Dame rallies from a 23-15 deficit in the fourth quarter to post a 30-23 victory.
1999 - After a Jarious Jackson - Malcolm Johnson conversion on fourth and 10 with Notre Dame trailing 24-21, Jackson hits Jay Johnson for the game-winning 16-yard touchdown pass with 36 seconds remaining.
1997 - Yet another Irish fourth-down conversion, this one from their own 32-yard line, keys a 93-yard game winning drive. Notre Dame is forced to come from behind three times in the game, while the final play of the game remains one of the most memorable moments in the series. A desperation heave as the clock expires is snatched by Navy's Pat McGrew at the 18-yard line and Notre Dame defensive back Allen Rossum catches up to McGrew at the one-yard line, forcing him out of bounds to preserve a 21-17 victory.
For this season's meeting, the Midshipmen are coming off one of the program's most successful campaigns ever in 2004. Navy finished the year 10-2 to match the school record for victories in a single season and dominated New Mexico, 34-19, in the Emerald Bowl.
Navy head coach Paul Johnson took over a program that had a combined record of 1-20 the previous two years before his arrival. After a 2-10 debut season in `02 (which included the previously mentioned scare of Notre Dame), Johnson has led his team to 18 victories in the last two seasons. A master of coaching the option, Johnson's teams have always been among the nation's best rushing teams.
The `05 team follows the pattern of Johnson's previous teams. Navy is currently ranked second in the country in rushing offense, averaging 281 yards per game. Last weekend against Tulane, Navy rolled up 28 points in the first quarter and cruised to a 49-21 victory on the strength of 418 rushing yards.
The option system the Midshipmen run, based on misdirection, will be a stern test for Notre Dame's defense - a defense that might be starting to find its identity by stopping the run.
Ineffectiveness against the pass is still a concern for Notre Dame's defense, as the Irish are surrendering 291 passing yards per contest. It is the rushing statistics, however, that continue to fall. Notre Dame is 25th in the nation in rushing defense, allowing 117 yards per contest. The veteran linebacker corps of seniors Brandon Hoyte and Corey Mays will need to play a solid game for Notre Dame to shut down Navy's rushing attack, and the duo will also be required to provide leadership to sophomore Maurice Crum, Jr., who will be facing an option-heavy offense for the first time in his career. Hoyte has a history of success against Navy, logging 32 career tackles in three games against the Midshipmen, including 16 in last season's victory at Giants Stadium.
Quarterback Lamar Owens (585 yards) and fullback Matt Hall (483) are the main rushing threats for Navy. Owens also is completing 54 percent of his passes when Navy decides to throw the ball, which does not happen very often. Owens has attempted just 89 passes this season. For comparison, Irish starting quarterback Brady Quinn has attempted 299 passes in 2005.
Navy also will bring a tough, sturdy defense to Notre Dame Stadium. The Midshipmen are 33rd nationally in total defense and have faced three solid offenses this year (vs. Maryland, vs. Stanford, at Rutgers). Navy's pass defense is even better, rated 19th in the nation.
It is safe to say, however, that Navy has not faced an offense to match the level of the Fighting Irish this season. Head Coach Charlie Weis has brought NFL-type performances to the Irish statistical sheet this season. The Irish are averaging 474 yards of total offense (10th in the nation), 334 passing yards (fifth) and 38 points (seventh).
Weis has said often in his press conferences this season that his offense and its capabilities are only bound by what the quarterback is able to handle. So far, junior Brady Quinn has handled everything that Weis has thrown at him.
Quinn is fourth in the country in total offense (339), sixth in pass efficiency (162.29) and already owns Notre Dame's single-season record for touchdown passes (23). He will have his eyes on another record this afternoon, as the Dublin, Ohio, native is just 106 yards from Jarious Jackson's single-season passing yardage mark of 2,753 from 1999.
Quinn's receivers, seniors Maurice Stovall and Anthony Fasano and junior Jeff Samardzija have reaped the benefits of Quinn's emergence this season. Irish fans will keep a close eye on today's game to see if Samardzija can continue his string of games with a touchdown pass (eight) and extend his school record for single-season touchdown receptions (12).
Fans should also keep an eye on the receiver's blocking ability as well. Stovall earned team headlines last weekend not for his spectacular touchdown catch against Tennessee, but for the three key blocks he performed. Stovall led Fasano's 43-yard touchdown catch and run, in addition to Samardzija's four-yard touchdown grab and his 73-yard reception in the fourth quarter.
Navy enters today's game facing a familiar scenario. They have been underdogs to the Irish for 41 years, but there is one constant, one tradition, that the Midshipmen maintain. They will play hard and disciplined today and if the Irish do not respond in kind, Navy has the ability to keep the ball away from Notre Dame's potent offense. It will take a complete team effort for the Irish to earn their seventh victory today - a feat the team has not accomplished since 2002 and only three times since 1999.