Mids have yet to clear Irish hurdle

During Navy resurgence, win over Notre Dame remains elusive

QB gets 1st start vs. No. 11 team

October 28, 2006|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,Sun reporter

Navy outside linebacker Tyler Tidwell looks back with pride at what he and his fellow seniors already have achieved. The class of 2007, one of the most accomplished in academy history, is a walking billboard trumpeting the football program's rise under fifth-year coach Paul Johnson.

But today provides a last chance to fill a void and elevate these seniors and the rest of this team toward rock-star status. If Navy (5-2) somehow manages to become bowl-eligible by breaking a 42-game losing streak to 11th-ranked Notre Dame, M&T Bank Stadium just might shake, rattle and roll a little.

"A [Navy] team could go 1-10, but if they beat Notre Dame, they'd always be remembered," Tidwell said.

"A lot of guys feel the streak is a huge black eye and an embarrassment for us. I've only been around for three of them, so that's all I'm going to lay on my shoulders, and this is the last one I can affect. I know [Notre Dame] counts this as a `W' every year. The key word around here this week is opportunity."

Beyond their failings against Notre Dame, these Midshipmen certainly have been opportunistic. In 2004, the Mids won 10 games for only the second time - and the first in 99 years. They have been to three straight bowl games and have won two in a row, neither of which had ever been done at Navy. With a victory over Army in five weeks, the senior class would become the first in school history to win the Commander in Chief's Trophy four consecutive times, and the first to do it with an 8-0 record against Army and Air Force.

Today, though, the odds are again stacked against the Mids, starting with the fact that Notre Dame (6-1) is positioning itself for an appearance in a Bowl Championship Series game and has an outside shot at the national title game.

Behind a high-powered passing game led by senior quarterback and Heisman Trophy contender Brady Quinn, Notre Dame is not short on weapons. Junior running back Darius Walker has power and breakaway ability. Senior wide receivers Jeff Samardzija and Rhema McKnight and senior tight end John Carlson are big-play threats. Quinn's decision-making and accuracy have been mostly unerring for the past two years.

Defensively, with players like senior end Victor Abiamiri (Gilman) and junior linebacker Maurice Crum leading the way, the Fighting Irish have tightened up in close victories over Georgia Tech (14-10) and UCLA (20-17) and are allowing only 3.8 yards per rush.

Navy, which banks on the running game in its spread option offense, will ask a young quarterback or two to do the highly improbable on a stage that could be bright and intimidating.

Sophomore quarterback Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada is expected to make his first college start, and fellow sophomore Jarod Bryant probably will play, too. Each player received his largest dose of playing time two weeks ago, after senior Brian Hampton went down with a season-ending knee injury during the first quarter of a 34-0 drubbing by Rutgers.

"If you don't feel like you have a chance, you're sunk before you start," Johnson said. "We understand we have to play our A-plus game to have a chance to stay with [Notre Dame].

"There's no pressure on us. Pressure is the Army-Navy game or the Navy-Air Force game. This game needs to be a fun game to play in. We've got to freewheel it, man. No individual is going to win this game - no one that we've got."

Kaheaku-Enhada, who called home to the Hawaiian island of Oahu earlier this week with a case of pre-game nerves and received a pep talk from his stepmother, Traci, said: "The `big' thing hasn't hit me yet. I'm just letting things come. All I'm concerned about is taking care of what I need to do to give us a chance to win."

Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis, who in his second year in South Bend has revitalized a storied program that had fallen into mediocrity, said the Irish have too much respect for the Mids - as players and future military officers - to take Navy for granted. Plus, there is the matter of confronting that triple option with discipline and patience. Read your keys, pursue the ball, make the tackle.

"They study the running game the way I study the passing game. This is not a tricky situation," Weis said. "You really have to play physical, sound football when you play a team like Navy. You can leave yourself open to the play-action [pass]. You don't have to do as many things [on defense]. You just try to do them better."

History suggests that the Irish will win handily. The 1963 Navy team that last beat the Irish dropped a squad that finished 2-7 and was one of the worst in Notre Dame history. Four losses by a touchdown or less dating to 1997 - including a 27-24 defeat on a last-second field goal in 2003 - came during down years under former coaches Bob Davie and Tyrone Willingham.

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