Sometimes even Irish need luck Keeping Navy at bay for 34 years isn't always about talent

November 14, 1998|By Alan Goldstein | Alan Goldstein,SUN STAFF

No intercollegiate football series has been more one-sided than Notre Dame vs. Navy, a rivalry that began in 1927 and continues 3: 30 this afternoon at Jack Kent Cooke Stadium.

The Fighting Irish hold a 61-9-1 lead and have won the past 34 since 1963, when Roger Staubach won the Heisman Trophy and led the Midshipmen to the Cotton Bowl.

Notre Dame has dominated the series with its superior talent, speed and size. But sometimes, as in last November's 21-17 scare in South Bend, you get the feeling that even the leprechauns are working on behalf of the Irish.

Senior guard J.D. Gainey believes it is more than elves and witchcraft.

"Aggravating was the word for that last loss," he said. "It was bad enough having 80,000 fans against us, but it seemed we were also fighting the referees."

Senior captain and slotback Jason Wolf remembers one play in particular when the officials from the Mid-American Conference seemed to be wearing Notre Dame's gold helmets.

The play occurred late in the first quarter with the game tied 7-7 and the Mids in possession on their 26. Running the option, quarterback Chris McCoy made an excellent fake at handing off to fullback Tim Cannada. Instead, he pitched out to Wolf, who was running clear at midfield when he began to hear a series of whistles.

"At the time, there was only one defensive back separating me from the goal line," Wolf recalled. "But the referees called the play back. They said it was 'an inadvertent whistle.' "

After a lengthy huddle, the officials credited Wolf with a 4-yard gain to the Navy 30, or where they thought Cannada had been stopped before discovering he didn't have the ball.

The Irish needed a 17-play, 93-yard scoring drive to win the game, but it almost ended on the first play when star running back Autry Denson fumbled and Navy safety Kevin Lewis recovered on the Notre Dame 7. Again, the play was overruled, with the officials saying Denson was already down.

The game also ended in bizarre fashion. McCoy threw a Hail Mary pass. It was tipped by a defender into the hands of Pat McGrew on the Notre Dame 25, and he raced to the 2-yard line before Allen Rossum made a game-saving tackle.

"We came so close," said Wolf. "We dominated them statistically. If one or two plays had gone our way, we would have finally ended the losing streak."

Talking with the media Tuesday, second-year Notre Dame coach Bob Davie did not dispute this point.

"Basically they outplayed us the whole game last year," said Davie, who has guided the 12th-ranked Irish to a 7-1 record this season. "We pretty much stole the game from them. We had a hard time moving the ball until that final drive. And, yes, I still remember that last Hail Mary play. It was like something out of Halloween."

Still, one may wonder why the service academies persist in playing Notre Dame. All told, the Irish boast a 116-22-5 record against the Air Force, Navy and Army, despite several recent close calls against the Cadets and a 20-17 loss to the Falcons in 1996.

It is mostly a matter of big financial guarantees and a chance to appear on national TV. And, as Navy coach Charlie Weatherbie said, "It also helps recruiting having Notre Dame on your schedule."

But Weatherbie realizes that repeating last year's performance against the Irish will be difficult.

"I think Notre Dame is playing with a lot more intensity this season," he said.

"They've got an attitude that has helped them win some close games with Purdue, Boston College and Army. We've played strong offensive teams in West Virginia, Air Force and BC, but Notre Dame is the total package."

Notre Dame, a 20 1/2 -point favorite, stands between Navy and its chance for a third straight winning season. But it's "the streak" that has hung over the Naval Academy like a black cloud.

"That's all I've been hearing about," said Wolf. "We've played these guys tough the past two years. We've shown we can move the ball [No. 1 in rushing] against anyone in the country. It will be a great challenge, but I think our time has come."

Navy today

Opponent: No. 12 Notre Dame

Site: Jack Kent Cooke Stadium, Landover

Time: 3: 30 p.m.

TV/Radio: Chs. 13, 9/WJFK (1300 AM), WNAV (1430 AM)

Line: Notre Dame by 20 1/2

Pub Date: 11/14/98

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