EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- For Navy, today's game against 10th-ranked Notre Dame is a matter of getting out healthy so it can attempt to salvage its season in its four final games, against Tulane, Vanderbilt, Rice and Army.
For Notre Dame, the game will be a tuneup for a final stretch against Boston College, Penn State, Southern California and a possible appearance in a major bowl game.
That Navy (0-6, the only winless team in Division I-A) is given no chance against Notre Dame (5-1-1) was clear in the questions fielded by Fighting Irish coach Lou Holtz during a series of teleconferences this week.
Questions such as "Will you get your players out early to avoid injury?" were the norm, with Holtz doing his best to pump up the game against a team whose 52 points is the second-fewest in Division I football (Prairie View, a I-AA school considered the worst Division I team, has scored 27).
"This is the best Navy team I've seen since I've been at Notre Dame," Holtz said. "This Navy team runs better on defense than any team I've seen."
Navy's defense has shown improvement at times this season, but the unit's vulnerability was exposed in last week's 37-21 loss to Division I-AA Delaware. Holtz appears to be ignoring the fact that the 34 points per game allowed by Navy ranks 105th among the nation's 107 Division I-A teams. Navy rates near the bottom in most key statistics, offensively and defensively.
"We have a tremendous responsibility to prepare our football team for each and every game," Holtz said.
"I ask the players to imitate the coaches, and if they see the preparation we make for the game they'll find it no different than any other game," Holtz said, when asked how he would keep his players focused. "We'll talk about the importance of the game to the overall scheme of our objectives."
Holtz and Navy coach George Chaump said repeatedly that Notre Dame's potent rushing offense was held in check during Notre Dame's 38-0 win over Navy a year ago, but that statistic is misleading. While Navy's eight-man front yielded just 180 rushing yards, its secondary was being riddled by quarterback Rick Mirer, who had the best passing game of his career, completing 17 of 23 passes for 303 yards and three touchdowns.
Yet despite the fact that Navy hasn't won a game in the series since 1963, history says you can't rule out the Midshipmen. Several down-and-out Navy teams have given Notre Dame fits. Two years ago, a 3-4 Navy team fresh off a homecoming loss to James Madison played Notre Dame even for a half before losing a 52-31 shootout. In 1987, a 3-3 Navy team battled Notre Dame in a 22-7 loss at Memorial Stadium. And in 1984, a 3-3-1 Navy team lost, 18-17, at The Meadowlands.
"As long as you have a chance and a will, there's a way," said Chaump, whose teams have been outscored by Notre Dame 131-31 in three games. "We're practicing, preparing and playing to win a football game. We're going to have to play great football."
NOTES: Navy junior Charles Puglia will make his first start at center. Starting C Steve Palmer injured his knee last week against Delaware and is out indefinitely. . . . Starting CB Joe Speed (a plebe from Dundalk High) suffered torn ligaments in his left knee last week and is out indefinitely after undergoing arthroscopic surgery. Speed's backup, Cory James, left last week's game with a pulled hamstring and is questionable. . . . Notre Dame is 7-0 at Giants Stadium (4-0 vs. Navy, 2-0 vs. Army and 1-0 vs. Virginia). Navy is 1-4, winning, 19-17, over Army in 1989.