No one is giving Navy's football team a chance this week against Notre Dame, but the Irish coach, the indomitable Lou Holtz, certainly will show up at the Meadowlands tomorrow.
He recalls another "breather" this year against one of Stanford University's "power" teams, which beat the Fighting Irish, 36-31, right under the shadow of the Golden Dome. Stanford lost again last week to put its record at 2-6-0.
So the moral of this story is that nothing is exactly impossible to an aroused team of reasonably talented young men on the football field, and Holtz knows it.
Nevertheless, on the surface a gloomy picture is unfolding for the Mids, who come into their 12:05 p.m. date with Notre Dame tomorrow still bruised and humiliated by James Madison, 16-7. It truly will be a major test of their pride and courage against a team that could line up pound for pound with the Chicago Bears.
The flat performance by Navy last Saturday against James Madison is simply impossible to explain rationally.
Obviously, the mistakes hurt: Pop-fly kickoffs were left to drop to the ground between receivers, and quarterbacks Alton Grizzard and Gary McIntosh scrambled for their lives as the Dukes' pass rush humbled the Navy offensive line. With the exceptions of Jason Pace's respectable 80 yards rushing on 14 tries (5.7 yards per carry) and periodic short passes dumped out into the flat to Jerry Dawson and Bill Mason, little sustained offense was generated.
Yet, Navy had more first downs (18 to 10), more passing yards (203 to 174) and more rushing yards (93 to 67) than the visitors, and the time of possession was even (29:29 to 30:31). So, what happened? What led to another embarrassing homecoming defeat?
There are no statistics measuring emotion or a whistle-to-whistle competitive effort. None to measure alertness, sharpness of effort, or motivation. None of these were sustained by the Mids on Saturday.
Sustained is the key word here. Observers could see them try to pick up the spirit and the emotion from time to time, but somehow dullness kept setting in.
In brief, Navy played a dull game, and this is most difficult to explain. If a team can't get up for a homecoming game before family, friends, alumni and a packed stadium that could well determine a winning or losing season, what can it get up for?
Longtime football enthusiasts, particularly those close to the game, such as coaches and athletic directors, have witnessed this phenomenon time and again over a period of years.
It always comes as a total surprise, leading at times to panic on the sidelines -- which doesn't help much. The dull effort is not deliberate by the team, the coaches normally have prepared well and the fan support is at a high pitch., Yet, the players appear mesmerized on the field at times, anchored in their tracks. And the more they try, the worse it gets.
It isn't easy to write off one like this, especially with the nation's No. 2 or 3 team coming up next, but here again is the challenge -- and one of the educational-developmental benefits of athletic competition. The loss must be put out of mind as much as possible, and the Mids have to go on like gangbusters and do lots of hard work.
The annual Navy-Notre Dame football game was one of the nation's truly classic encounters, and it's the longest-running continuous intersectional series.
Tomorrow's game will be the 64th meeting between the two great schools, with the Irish holding a 53-9-1 lead. The last time the Mids won was 1963, 35-14, with such Navy standouts as Roger Staubach, captain Tom Lynch, John Sai, Pat Donnelly, Fred Marlin, Steve Moore, Ed Orr and record-setting kicker Tom Williams in the lineup.
However, Navy did come close as recently as 1984, losing, 18-17, on a field goal in the last 14 seconds during a disarming 4-6-1 season under coach Gary Tranquill.
From their first meeting in 1927, however, a rich American football tradition was born, and it has been nurtured through the years, involving numerous individuals that became celebrities on the national scene.
From Notre Dame came the immortal Knute Rockne, Gus Dorais, Frank Leahy, Terry Brennan, Joe Kuharich, Dan Devine, Hugh Devore, Ara Parsegian, Johnny Liyacks and Gus Sonnenbergs.
From Navy came Eddie Erdalatz (beat Notre Dame twice, 1956-1957), Jonas Ingram, Gil Dobie, Bill Ingram, Rip Miller, Tom Hamilton, Swede Larson, Wayne Hardin and George Welsh, along with playing greats such as Frank Wickhurst, Buzz Bonies, Slade Cutter, Don Whitmore, Dick Scott, Dick Duden, Steve Eisenhauer, Ron Beagle, Joe Bellino, Greg Mather, Roger Staubach and Napoleon McCallum.
As for tomorrow's battle, Notre Dame's only noticeable weakness has been defending a good running attack as witnessed in recent games with Air Force, Stanford and Pittsburgh. But it is loaded with so many other weapons that it will take an extraordinary Mid effort to stay in the game.
Notre Dame remains on the schedule through at least 1993.