ANNAPOLIS -- When quarterback Alton Grizzard first stepped into Notre Dame Stadium as a Navy plebe in 1987, he looked around for traces of the legends, the giants of Irish lore like Knute Rockne and The Gipper.
"I don't see any ghosts," Grizzard remarked to a few of his teammates.
A Navy victory, alas, did not follow Grizzard's blithe disregard for Notre Dame's old heroes. The Irish romped, 56-13.
Now another Notre Dame-Navy skirmish is at hand. The Middies will entertain the No. 2 Irish Saturday at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., with this bleak prospect: They have lost 26 straight to Notre Dame, last winning in 1963 when Roger Staubach was a junior and en route to the Heisman Trophy.
That was six years before Grizzard was born. Now the senior quarterback gets his last crack at the Irish. As the starter in 30 of Navy's last 40 games, he already has had three cracks at them.
"All I remember about that 1987 game was getting crushed," Grizzard said. "I got several burners [pinched nerves] and was carried off the field. They really hit hard."
His appetite for playing Notre Dame undiminished, Grizzard and the Middies gave a strong account of themselves the following year. Catching the Irish flat, Navy lost, 22-7, in Baltimore.
"It should have been even closer," Grizzard said. "We were driving, late in the third quarter, I think, and went for it on fourth-and-one near their 30-yard line. We made it, or thought we did, but the ball was spotted behind the 30 and that stopped the drive and took the wind out of our sails."
Last year Navy was "totally blown away" by Notre Dame, 41-0, yet Grizzard still thirsts for this one last shot. The Irish are favored by a hefty 35-point margin and Navy is coming off a loss to NCAA Division I-AA James Madison, of all people.
"We'll play better this week," Grizzard vowed. "You play up to your competition. We're not intimidated. We just have to execute. They're bigger, stronger and faster; we just have to out-execute them."
In three-plus seasons, Grizzard has had precious few moments to relish. One, the only one, was the 19-17 victory over Army last year.
"When I look back, I can say we played Notre Dame, Syracuse and Pitt, but I'd like to beat some of them," Grizzard said. "The win over Army for three years work is not that good. I want more, like a trip to a bowl or a win over Notre Dame."
Grizzard himself has accumulated some impressive numbers. He is Navy's all-time total offense leader with 4,689 yards, moving from No. 6 this season past Bob Leszczynski, Napoleon McCallum, Roger Staubach, Bill Byrne and John Cartwright to No. 1.
Grizzard owns six other school records, and is on the verge of becoming the fourth Navy player to rush for 2,000 career yards, behind Cleveland Cooper, Eddie Meyers and McCallum (4,179).
It's a funny thing about that 2,000-yard plateau. Needing only 5 yards, he reached it in the first quarter of the James Madison game.
By game's end, however, he was minus 14 yards rushing on 13 carries. Now he needs 19 yards for 2,000.
Grizzard and the rest of the Middies haven't adjusted to new coach George Chaump's pass-oriented offense as quickly as they had anticipated. With four games remaining, Grizzard has completed 76 passes, compared with 126 in his first three years combined. But his completion percentage this year is only .472.
"It's taken longer than I hoped, even though I'm throwing better now than I ever have in my life," Grizzard said. "It's a matter of repetition. How many passes did I throw my first three years ? How many this season ? It takes time."
Chaump, a firm believer in Grizzard from the start, particularly as a leader, parries questions about the quarterback's slow adjustment by shifting the responsibility to the offensive line.
"There are hidden factors," Chaump said. "If you don't give a passer time and protection, it's difficult. We have to have bigger and stronger linemen, guys who live in the weight room.
"We'll have to take a shot with skinny kids no one wants and develop them. We've had some mismatches on our line."
Chaump didn't say it, but there are bound to be mismatches galore against the Irish.