As the beat goes on, `almost' gets farther away for Navy

October 17, 2004|By DAVID STEELE

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - Not to get all Nostradamus on anyone, but here's a safe prediction. Next year's Navy-Notre Dame game won't quite match the anticipation of this year's game.

Even if Navy is undefeated again, or if Notre Dame is vulnerable again, or both at the same time. The excitement will be there, as will the deeply seated belief that this really will be the Midshipmen's year. But it won't reach the heights attained as yesterday's kickoff approached. There will be a crucial element missing.

The memories, the kind that fueled this year's matchup, will be absent. The 27-9 spanking administered by the Irish will look like so many of the others in years past - so many of the 40 others. They definitely won't resemble the memories carried by Navy into this one. The image it carried from South Bend a year ago, of kicker/hero D.J. Fitzpatrick being mobbed on the field, and of Navy players slouched in disappointment at what got away.

This game will teach its own lessons, though - and most of them will be tied to the one the year before, and the year before that. Navy hadn't been that close in years. It can't come much closer than it did last year, a loss on the last play of the game. Unfortunately for many Navy supporters, that narrow escape by Notre Dame fueled the fire everybody brought into Giants Stadium and before a national television audience.

Now it will fuel the memories they'll carry into the near future - and the truths about opportunities being fleeting and of momentum being hard to tote from one year to another. Chances like that don't happen every year. The worst mistake a competitor can make is to believe, "We're so close, we'll get 'em next year."

Granted, no one on Navy was uttering anything like that either before the game or after. The last thing the Mids wanted to do in the week (actually, more than two weeks) leading up to this was dwell on the previous year. They were well-aware of what had happened the past two times they had met, insisted senior Kyle Eckel.

Asked if amid all the hype and nostalgia and reflection on the four decades of disappointment and the near-miss of a year ago, the team truly believed it would end The Streak this time, Eckel replied, very simply, "Yeah. Yeah, we did." It was going to take more than they were able to bring the year before. It was a given that Notre Dame was bigger and faster than Navy. But that wasn't exactly a new development. As Paul Johnson pointed out, this wasn't a 41-game winning streak against Southern California. There was a reason Navy was going to be an underdog 10 times out of 10, sentimentality aside.

Nothing less than a perfect game from Navy would do. And "perfect" was more elusive than what appears on the surface. Notre Dame didn't commit a turnover yesterday, and that aided its cause enormously. On the other hand, the Irish didn't commit one last year, either, and it almost didn't matter.

Perfection was beyond it yesterday. Notre Dame did nothing that caught Navy by surprise. Johnson acknowledged that he didn't even try to make adjustments at halftime. Notre Dame's scheme to stop the Navy attack "wasn't anything we haven't seen." Size and speed, however, don't make an offensive guard jump offside and turn a fourth-and-one conversion attempt into a punt. They don't make a blitzing defender slip and fall on the way to the quarterback and allow him to complete a big third-down pass for 30 yards and set up a touchdown. They don't lock a hand onto a face mask, even for a split-second, to nullify a successful stop of a Notre Dame fourth-down try and keep a drive alive.

A missed block here, a missed tackle there, a missed assignment elsewhere, a tick late on this play, a hair too small on that one. It all adds up. Without them, Navy might have been as close to Notre Dame at the end - maybe even at the beginning - as it was in last year's game.

Of course, Notre Dame has a long memory, too. As much as Navy tried to play down the previous year, the Irish tried to play it up, to make sure they're not in the same spot again. Go ahead early and stay ahead, they said, and they did.

"I wouldn't say I wasn't worried about it," admitted linebacker Mike Goolsby. "We definitely don't want to be the team that ended the streak."

In hindsight, the odds of that were pretty slim. In hindsight, the odds were much better last year - except no one quite realized that. Not for an entire year. Not after Navy started out 5-0 this time around, and produced a thrilling victory - in the exact same fashion as Notre Dame had against it last year - last month at Air Force. Not after Notre Dame looked like BCS material against, say, Michigan and Michigan State and like another edition of America's favorite underachiever against BYU and Purdue.

It looked as if there really were just one more step to make to clear the greatest hurdle. Now it looks as if the year to make that leap had come and gone. This was not the year. And worse, if it was not last year, who knows what year it might be?

Now, Navy will march on to a record unseen around here in decades. Notre Dame will march on to a record plenty have seen lately. It's not exactly a blemish to have an "L" next to that game. But what a season it would have been with a "W." Especially in light of the rest of Navy's schedule.

It will look good as Navy takes the field next year. It won't look as good when it gets to the Notre Dame game. Not as good as it had looked this year.

The window closed fast. So fast that it made sure that it wouldn't be open as wide next time around. So fast that it reminded everyone that when all is said and done, "almost" isn't quite as good as it seemed.

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