Navy's Johnson cautions reading too much into stats

At Notre Dame today, Mids still face long odds

November 08, 2003|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

The stars appear to be aligned favorably for Navy to make history in South Bend, Ind., although Midshipmen coach Paul Johnson says the popular numbers are telling only part of the story.

The thought of beating Notre Dame today looks like a strangely workable idea for Navy. First, forget that the Mids have not done it since 1963, when Roger Staubach was the quarterback and eventual Heisman Trophy winner and the Beatles were a few months away from launching their American invasion.

After 39 consecutive losses to the Fighting Irish, an NCAA record, Navy (6-3) finds itself revived as it faces another chapter in the game's longest continuous intersectional rivalry.

The Midshipmen are one victory away from becoming bowl eligible for the first time since 1996 and guaranteeing their first winning season in six years. Notre Dame (2-6) is off to its worst start since, ahem, 1963. With one more defeat, the Irish would clinch a losing season.

Navy runs a spread option offense that has hummed efficiently behind senior quarterback Craig Candeto for most of the season and continues to lead the nation in rushing with an average of 309.6 yards a game. Notre Dame's offense averages just over one touchdown per game and features a young, injury-weakened line and a freshman quarterback, Brady Quinn, who has thrown 11 interceptions.

Navy's defense is not frightening. It bobs and weaves, gang tackles, creates turnovers and deceives with zone blitzes and cover-2 schemes designed to eliminate the big play. It has allowed 44 points over its past three games. Notre Dame's defense has surrendered at least 37 points on three occasions, including last week's 37-0 loss at home to Florida State, the first shutout at home since 1978.

Johnson knows Navy could take down Goliath with a near-flawless performance and a big break or two. But, even after bringing bowl talk and winning back to Annapolis following a 3-30 skid over the previous three seasons, he insists the Mids are still David today at legendary, sold-out Notre Dame Stadium.

All one has to do is look at things like size and speed matchups, proud tradition and a comparison of the schedules each team has faced.

"We have to understand what we're getting ready to walk into," Johnson said. "We're getting ready to walk into a place that has tremendous tradition, tremendous players, and all they've heard is how bad they are. They are going to be wired, and we'd better expect it. They are big and fast and strong.

"Everybody is being misled by the schedule [Notre Dame] has played. We don't recruit from the same pool. I think in all honesty for us to beat them we have to play close to perfect and they have to help us some. I think our guys will go play hard. I don't think we're going to be afraid."

Navy is feeling too loose and confident to be fearful, even though the Mids have played a schedule that ranks 108th out of 117 teams and have beaten one Division I-A opponent with a winning record (Air Force), even though the Irish have gone through their usual meat grinder with the nation's toughest slate.

Notre Dame has lost to No. 2 Southern California, No. 3 Florida State and No. 8 Michigan. Only one of its opponents, Boston College, is not a Top 25 team. Its past eight opponents have a combined record of 56-16.

The Irish also are not very good. Second-year coach Tyrone Willingham is 4-9 in his past 13 games, and his West Coast offense is in shambles. Quinn is operating behind a line that lost four starters to the NFL. Injuries have devastated the right side of the line, where sophomore guard Jamie Ryan and freshman tackle Ryan Harris are learning on the job.

"I have believed for a long time if one is frustrated, one can not change the circumstances he's in," Willingham said. "I believe the things that are happening, we can change."

Senior running back Julius Jones and athletic receivers such as Rhema McKnight and Maurice Stovall are the keys to Notre Dame's success. Jones leads the Irish with 614 yards, and he has averaged 123 yards in three games against Navy.

"Our mentality has been to get off to a good start," said Navy inside linebacker Eddie Carthan, whose team-high four interceptions highlight the Mids' 22 forced turnovers.

"If one or two guys step up and make some plays, everybody can catch that fever."

The Mids probably should get after Notre Dame early, since the Irish have been outscored by an 84-27 margin in the first quarter and 44-15 in the third. And Navy needs to make the option work more impressively than ever to keep the ball away from a defense that is better than it looks.

Inside linebacker Courtney Watson is a Butkus Award semifinalist. Left end Justin Tuck leads the team with seven sacks and 11 tackles for losses. Right end Victor Abiamiri (Gilman) has been effective as only the second freshman lineman to start at Notre Dame since 1991.

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