EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Lou Holtz removed his glasses and wearily rubbed his eyes. The afternoon had not been to the Notre Dame coach's liking.
"Our offense played very well," Holtz said, launching into praise of Raghib "Rocket" Ismail, who had 219 all-purpose yards in Notre Dame's 52-31 triumph over Navy Saturday before 70,382 in Giants Stadium.
"He's special, the best player in the country, no doubt about it," Holtz said. "I wish the answer to our defensive problems were that simple."
"Did you know," a man said, "that the Rocket played defense in high school?"
"I'm glad you brought that up," Holtz said wryly.
In sum, the Irish (7-1) did not play defense like a team with designs on the national championship. Notre Dame is expected to move to No. 1 in the latest Associated Press poll, to be announced this evening. The Irish, ranked No. 2 going into the weekend, were the only team in the top five to win Saturday. Top-ranked Virginia fell to Georgia Tech, 41-38.
As usual, Holtz focused on his team's shortcomings, saying the Irish have been weak on defense for most of the season.
"When you score 52 points and can't even play your second unit, it's disappointing," said Holtz, who never was able to use his defensive reserves. "We've had this problem all year, and I've been worried about it.
"This is one of the low spots in my career. You can't be a great football team if you don't play good defense. I say this because I know what's lying ahead of us."
Directly ahead is a trip Saturday to No. 11 Tennessee (5-1-2), which defeated Temple, 41-20. The Irish close with Penn State (6-2) and Southern Cal (6-2-1).
"We've been allowing more points in one quarter than Tennessee does in one game," Holtz grumbled. "And they have an outstanding offense, and we'll be going into a difficult environment."
The odd thing is that Notre Dame surrendered 31 points to a Navy team that was coming off a 16-7 loss to Division I-AA James Madison. Yet the Middies shredded the Irish defense that contained Michigan, Michigan State and Miami. Only Stanford, which handed Notre Dame its lone loss, 36-31, has scored more points against the Irish this season.
"It's the first time a team has controlled the ball on us," said defensive tackle George Williams. "Any time you give up 31 points you don't feel like you have a victory. The coach was upset, and he had a right to be."
Not since they last upended Notre Dame, 35-14 in 1963, had the Middies piled up so many points against the Irish. It was the most Navy had scored against anybody since a 41-7 victory over Yale in 1988.
"Navy ran when they wanted and threw when they wanted," Holtz said. "And this is a team that was struggling offensively."
Navy accumulated 382 yards of total offense. The Irish came into the game with an average yield of 416, which supports Holtz's claim that defense has been a season-long worry.
Holtz admitted the team "had to feel the effect" of the absence of All-America middle guard Chris Zorich (slipped kneecap), but even that didn't fully account for the leaky defense. Were the Irish, perhaps, looking ahead to Tennessee?
"This defense can't look ahead to anyone," Holtz said tersely.
"We just played bad," said linebacker Devon McDonald. "The wishbone was a surprise, but a team like ours is supposed to adjust."
Navy coach George Chaump, who abandoned the wishbone offense of his predecessor, Elliot Uzelac, in favor of a pro-style attack, dusted off some wishbone plays for Notre Dame. They worked beautifully, as quarterback Alton Grizzard raced for 93 yards and a touchdown. The score was tied at halftime, 10-10.
"We didn't expect the wishbone," Holtz said. "Chaump has thrown his whole career."
"We played the wishbone," Chaump said, "to keep the ball out of their hands. We wanted to keep possession of it."