Weary of loss-streak talk, Navy tries to end it

5-0 Mids bid to beat Irish for first time since 1963

October 16, 2004|By Kent Baker | Kent Baker,SUN STAFF

Two score and one year ago, Navy defeated Notre Dame on the football field. It hasn't happened since.

Today at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., an undefeated Navy squad seeks to break that 40-game famine, the longest dominance by one school over another in NCAA Division I-A history, in their nationally televised 78th meeting.

The Midshipmen have had 16 days to prepare and be reminded of the infamous streak, which began in 1964 and has continued through nine Navy coaches. They have lost their tolerance for the subject.

"If we win, it means we'll quit hearing about the 40 years," said Navy quarterback Aaron Polanco, a co-captain.

"I'm definitely getting tired of it," added safety Josh Smith, the other co-captain. "I'm 0 and 2 against them. It sure would be nice to be known as the team that finally ends the streak."

"Most of us weren't even born when half of it happened," pointed out defensive back Vaughn Kelley.

After three heartbreaking losses to the Irish in the past five seasons and a 5-0 start by a team that has proved very resilient, most observers evaluate this as Navy's best chance for reversal.

The Midshipmen are completely healthy and highly motivated.

But, as usual, it is a tall order for a team that often spots its opponents size and skill, compensating by adhering to Navy coach Paul Johnson's system and tricky, triple-option offense and playing with discipline and ferocious tenacity. Notre Dame's stock has fallen, but the Irish are not exactly deprived of highly recruited talent.

Johnson has portrayed this as another "David vs. Goliath" matchup, relishing the underdog tag. Notre Dame coach Tyrone Willingham is concentrating on the first commandment in the coach's manual - play them one at a time - and trying to divert attention from the school's mastery in the series.

"Notre Dame has a bunch of high school All-Americans," said Johnson.

"I laugh when people say that this might be the time, that this might be a down year. Yeah, they have 35 high school All-Americans instead of 50. We're not going to out-athlete Notre Dame. We better be ready to play as a team, be smart, take care of the ball and play as well as we can to have any chance at all."

But the Midshipmen have shown perseverance and grit in pulling out at least three games, 28-24 over Northeastern, 29-26 over Vanderbilt and 24-21 over Air Force. They will need those qualities again against the Irish, who have shown a knack for finding their stride in the waning moments of recent narrow victories over Navy.

"When it's gotten close, they've upped their level of play another notch and we haven't been able to go with them," said Johnson. "Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades."

To wit: two years ago, a 1-7 Navy team led 23-15 with five minutes left at Ravens Stadium. Notre Dame reeled off 15 points to win by seven.

And there is the question of the layoff. Obviously, it helps decrease the bumps and bruises. On the flip side, a team can get stale without game action for so long.

"I think it'll be beneficial, but you never know," said Johnson. "We played five games in September and that's a lot. They've all been hard games. We really haven't had a lot of breathing room. This team just can't seem to do things easy."

"It has been a long time, and it hasn't," said Kelley. "The first day back, you could tell we'd been off the field for a while. We were going through the motions. On the other hand, it gave the coaches a lot of time to put the game plan together and players a chance to heal up."

Unlikely is the possibility that the Irish will take Navy lightly, based on the tough sledding they have had the last two years, the nuances of Johnson's attack and the knowledge that they are in against a team that will battle until the final whistle.

"I hate playing Navy," Irish defensive end Justin Tuck said earlier this week.

"After this football game there is going to be a lot of people banged up and bruised and things like that. Whenever you play an option team and they cut [block] as much as they do you're going to come out of that game worn out."

"Navy drives the coaches nuts because it's such a completely different type of offense to prepare for," said linebacker Mike Goolsby.

"It's a lot of work because you've got to hit this one right on the nose," said Willingham.

Countering the Johnson offense requires mass defensive discipline, individuals concentrating on their own assignments and less gambling. And this is the only option Notre Dame will see all season.

"They bring it," guard Dan Stevenson said of the Midshipmen. "The thing that they do is never quit playing. They'll play you until the very end."

"We're looking at this as a real threat to us," added defensive end Kyle Budinscak. "They're the kind of team who could easily be victorious if we don't bring our A game."

Notre Dame has rationed five of its six opponents to fewer than 100 yards rushing. Navy's ground game is sixth nationally. Something has to give.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.